Farm Ireland

Sunday 22 April 2018

Viewpoint: Many farmers wear the heavy workload as a badge of honour

Heather Peppard, Brett Brothers and Liam Ryan, Callan Co-Op during a Teagasc spring walk on PJ's O'Keeffe's farm at Callan, Co Kilkenny. Photo: Pat Moore.
Heather Peppard, Brett Brothers and Liam Ryan, Callan Co-Op during a Teagasc spring walk on PJ's O'Keeffe's farm at Callan, Co Kilkenny. Photo: Pat Moore.
Louise Hogan

Louise Hogan

It's not the first time I've heard the word sustainability and farming bandied about in the same sentence. Yet rather than referring to the environment, this time there was a whole other aspect to the talk of sustainability - preserving farmers' health.

There were plenty of younger faces at the latest Teagasc spring grazing walk on the farm of dairy farmer and Macra member PJ O'Keeffe in Callan, Co Kilkenny.

And aside from the talk centring on the very obvious difficulties of the poor growth rates due to the cold weather, another topic that cropped up was the sustainability of long working hours.

Afterwards PJ O'Keeffe spoke about a work/life balance, something few in farming ever take the time from their 60/70 hours-a-week schedules to ever properly think about.

"Young people think dairying is sexy - we're afraid to say it isn't all it is cracked up to be," says PJ.

The 30-year-old feels many in the industry are "institutionalised" into accepting the heavy workload, something that many wear as a badge of honour. Yet he points out the importance of a life off-farm, especially community involvement through sport or other events, as key to protecting mental health and warding off isolation.

"This year has highlighted it to me. We are farming for a reason - it is to make a living. It is not to work ourselves into the ground. We need to focus on what is important.

"You can work 19 hours a day but unless it is sustainable going forward we are wasting our time," he says, pointing out his family's old milking parlour meant five hour milkings and wasn't able for the workload from 320 cows.

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"My farm is not sustainable at the moment, but when my milking parlour is built, then we've got a nice farm to work on."

He added that he feels his interest would dwindle in the long-term if it is not possible to get some time off-farm to spend with his family and pursue his sporting interests.

Another dairy farmer from the midlands, also contacted the Farming Independent recently to point out that, as he hangs up the boots after a lifetime in the milking parlour, he feels there must be more to life than 24/7 work. He said too many farmers are "institutionalised" into staying in the industry.

It is frequently pointed out that the Teagasc National Farm Survey and profit monitors don't fully account for labour, with many small or medium-sized operations also utilising a lot of 'free' family labour.

Many young farmers have been pushing themselves hard to expand.

Yet as the ICSA's Eddie Punch has pointed out on these pages, many of today's hard working, expansionary farmers are tomorrow's hip operations waiting list.

Perhaps, it is time to bring farmers' physical and mental health into the wider debate about farm structures and incomes.

Indo Farming