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Forget idea of 'the good life' on a real farm

Maura Derrane reckons for a while there we forgot ourselves and thought we were Monte Carlo and not Monaghan. She was extolling the virtues of the farming way of life in her capacity as Feirm Factor presenter on TV.

A lot of you agree with her, according to the latest Millward Brown Lansdowne poll which shows that 51 per cent think working in agriculture is an attractive career choice.

Of course, it could be that what you are really saying is working is an attractive career choice, even if it is on a farm. Or maybe you've just got that dreamy view of the farming way of life. You know, living in a big house with hundreds of acres, the sun is always shining and you eat your own beef and lamb, milk and butter with your own organic bacon and eggs. Money is never scarce, and if it is, just sell off a site to a gullible townie for a small fortune.

The truth is a lot different. The farmers' kids are as likely to be guzzling crisps and coke as your own lot. Farming is a business and a tough business at that. Yes, you buy in livestock at one end, feed them up for a while and sell them at the other with the difference being the profit. And right now, prices are good so there is a decent living to be made. But feed has to be sown and grown and harvested successfully, weather and disease permitting, and some of it has to be bought in, even when grain prices are rising -- so does the fertiliser and the diesel, and, most expensive of all, the machinery.

In the good years it's great, but bad years happen. Years when markets collapse because some group of farmers in some other part of the world -- anywhere from South America to New Zealand -- over-produce the very thing you are trying to sell. And the price of the grain you have to buy in to feed the livestock can go completely out of your reach if there is a shortage due to a bad harvest anywhere from Russia to Canada, or if emerging giants like India or China decide they are willing to pay more than you can afford to hoover up scarce supplies.

And that's just the farmers at the simple end of the business. Dairying is more complex and more work-intensive. It's a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week job, especially if you are trying to run a suckler herd -- breeding your own replacement cattle -- as well as serving the never-ending demand for fresh milk for the shops or the cheese factory. Milk quotas may be on the way out, but so too are subsidies. The price of land is going up -- the only property that is seeing any increase in value, and farmers seem to be the only ones with the money to buy it.

Everyone Irish thinks that farming is somewhere in their DNA. We all believe that back there somewhere, our people were either landlords or peasants or big farmers or small farmers. Mostly though, the bloodline is probably pure farm labourer. And if you were to get your wish and get transported into the farming life, you would find it a culture shock. You would find the work often extremely hard and physically tiring, not to mention dangerous. You would find that without some educational qualification, many of the specialised areas of modern plant and animal husbandry are beyond you. And that's before we come to handling heavy machinery and cantankerous cattle.

Farming can be a lonely life -- like any sole trader, you have important decisions to make alone and when times are tough, you have to deal with these on your own too. I have known outwardly happy and apparently fulfilled farmers take their own lives when the pressure of a downturn became too much to bear.

I suppose the real problem for the urbanite fancying a country-based career change is that farming is more a way of life than a career. It certainly isn't just a job. Those who are most successful at it are born to it. Over the decades, generations of farmers' children have left the land to work abroad or just up in Dublin as nurses or gardai or civil servants. But the bloodline continues with one child, usually the eldest son, inheriting. There are hobby farmers and rich people with more money than sense who take up the faux gentry lifestyle. But mostly the countryside is peopled with hardworking, hard-worrying men and women trying to make a living and rear their families and meet their repayments. They have good years but they have bad years too. Sometimes they whine a bit too much, but how much better off would the rest of us be now if we had adopted more of the poor mouth and less of the boasting during our Celtic boom.

Certainly, if you are determined, there are openings for the career-minded in Irish agriculture, especially now when it is going through one of its more successful phases. These are not just down on the farm but in the factory and in every aspect of what is called agri-business. This is, after all, a multi-million euro export business with extensive foreign markets to be serviced and further exploited.

But forget the "good life" idea. Go to college, get the relevant qualification. Then you can seriously begin the quest for a career in agriculture.

Otherwise you are going to find yourself with a shovel in your hand, living in wellington boots and semi-permanently up to your ankles in shite. The ancestors would not be proud.

Sunday Independent