Sunday 21 July 2019

Old farming images reap escape from modern life

The mythical idea of farming from days gone by takes us back to more serene times - a time before driverless tractors, says Victoria Mary Clarke

Victoria Mary Clarke with farmer James Grannell, who is a model in the Irish Farmer calendar. Photo: Fergal Phillips
Victoria Mary Clarke with farmer James Grannell, who is a model in the Irish Farmer calendar. Photo: Fergal Phillips

Victoria Mary Clarke

The other day I got given an 'Irish Farmer' calendar for 2017. It is full of hot, young, semi-naked farmers cavorting in hay barns, and striking flirtatious poses with cows and sheep and pigs and bits of rope and a certain amount of mud.

At first I was intrigued, especially by the cheeky chap on the cover (Mr July) who is topless and positioned coquettishly between two goats.

After lusting after quite a few of the farmers, I was aware of a developing sense of guilt, almost as though I had been fancying priests.

I hung the calendar and thought nothing more of it, except to wonder how they got the goats to stand still, until I was confronted with another unnerving farm related incident. I met a lovely young woman called Alma Jordan who has a company called Agri Kids which has just launched an app for the children of farmers. The app teaches kids about the dangers of tractors, combine harvesters, slurry pits, bulls and all the other things that injure and kill children on farms.

When Alma described some of the more gruesome incidents of toddlers being mangled by farm equipment, I was delighted to hear that her app can prevent such things from happening. It was when I casually enquired about the farmers themselves and whether they use apps, that I got the shock of my life. I felt that way a child must feel upon discovering the truth about Santa Claus (whatever that might be).

For Alma began telling me about all kinds of newfangled technology, not to mention apps, that Irish farmers are using. She said that her father is a tillage farmer and has been for 40 years. When she was a child, his combine harvester didn't even have a cab, he was exposed to the elements and always in danger of falling off, but these days he has an air-conditioned cab with a CD player and technology to measure the moisture level of the grain, and how much tonnage to the acre is being yielded as well as roof placed satellites that tell him if a certain patch of the field has not yielded well and needs extra fertiliser. He also has an alarm that goes off when the grain is ready to be emptied.

I begged her to stop, but she told me more. She mentioned Irish-made software called 'farmflo', which farmers use to collect and track information about crops and animals such as feeding, injections, milk yields, calving fertility and so on.

It seems that some farmers now use drones to film their fields and keep track of everything that is happening instead of rambling around with a dog and a stick, like they used to. They can now have driverless tractors and precision soil-sampling gadgets and nitrogen sensors and electronic ear tags that let them know how often and how much the animals are eating as well as how much they move around. They also have GPS steering and irrigation apps and all of the data is stored in the cloud so they can run the farm from a smart phone or a tablet.

All of this blew my mind, but the most shocking thing was when someone told me that there is a farm in West Cork which only uses robots. The robots herd and milk the cows while the farmer gets on with more important things. At first I didn't believe her so I googled it and not only is it true, but there are loads of these robot milkers in Ireland.

Not being a person who spends much time on farms, I retain a mental picture of our Irish farmers as a collection of old men in flat caps and tweed jackets who smoke pipes and leave their front doors ajar and spend their time strolling slowly up and down the lanes, stopping only to philosophise about life and perhaps to compose a poem about the stony grey soil. I think of our farmers as sacred creatures who are never young or handsome and categorically are never naked, not even in bed. They inhabit a simple and beautiful Ireland with rolling green fields, donkeys looking picturesque on peat bogs and misty, mournful mountains.

This Ireland smells of gorse flowers and turf fires and freshly baked soda bread. And these farmers lead hard but rewarding lives, up at the crack of dawn milking cows and digging things in the mud in all weathers. They drink pints of Guinness in proper old pubs and stay up all night singing Danny Boy and speaking Irish.

These creatures are surely crucial to our tourist industry, if we don't have leprechauns what will the tourists come here to see? I can't imagine the coachloads of Americans being happy, too, with driverless tractors and robots and drones. It is bad enough that we have motorways and roundabouts instead of proper roads with grass in the middle.

And much worse than that, for the rest of us Irish citizens these mythical farmers represent a fantasy escape from the stress of modern life with its perpetual connection to computers, gadgets and machines. They represent an alternative lifestyle; a healthier, more natural one in which people get up with the sun and spend the day getting their hands stuck into the soil and feeling connected with nature. A world in which people are never impatient in shops, but linger to gossip and take their time about everything. A world where everyone knows the names of all their neighbours and sleeps soundly at night.

If it all gets too much in the city, I always think I can run away and live on a farm. To have this illusion shattered is horrifying. Where else would I have to escape to? Unless I open an olde world Irish farm themed park for tourists, with old men in flat caps and pipes, and make a small fortune?

Sunday Independent

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