Wednesday 18 September 2019

“I had no knowledge about farming…now I’m Farmer of the Year!”

Do you think you have what it takes to become this year’s Farmer of the Year?

Entries are now open for the Zurich Farm Insurance Farming Independent Farmer of the Year 2019, so we caught up with last year’s winner to find out how the year has been since being crowned the 2018 Farmer of the Year.

Gillian O’Sullivan from Dungarvan in Co Waterford, who scooped the overall title along with the Rising Star award, describes winning as being a “huge deal” to her and her family.

Up until 2008, their family farm was run by Gillian’s father Michael and brother Vincent. But when Vincent passed away suddenly, Gillian and her husband Neil decided to move back down to Dungarvan, after living and working in Dublin up until then.

“We were both vets in Dublin at the time, and we had absolutely no knowledge of dairy farming,” says Gillian. “We didn’t know anything about milking cows or grassland management, but my father transferred all his knowledge to us over two years. It started as just helping my father out on the farm, but it soon became a love affair with the farm and a new full-time occupation. He has since handed us over the farm and I haven’t looked back since.”

When Gillian’s husband Neil put her forward for Farmer of the Year 2018, she says she was in complete shock when she was announced the winner. 

“Winning Farmer of the Year 2018 is a huge testament to the team effort and progress we have made over the last 10 years. To go from having such a low knowledge base in dairying to winning the title is a massive achievement, and being acknowledged for the work we do means a lot to us.”

Sustainable times

The Zurich Farm Insurance Farming Independent Farmer of the Year Awards – which are now in their sixth year – are all about recognising and rewarding the very best in Irish farming.

There are five main categories to enter: Beef Farmer, Sheep Farmer, Dairy Farmer and Tillage Farmer of the Year along with The Farm Safety Award. In addition to this, a Lifetime Achievement Award will be presented to one hardworking individual. Finally, everyone will be on the edge of their seats to see who will take home the coveted Farmer of the Year 2019 Trophy.

Gillian says the aftermath of winning the award has been “incredibly positive”.

“We have been presented with a lot of various opportunities and I have made a lot of connections with other farmers and people within the industry. But what has been most important to us is that we get to showcase exactly what we do on our farm. We’ve also been able to raise awareness about the significance of farming and sustainability, through farm visits, discussion groups and presenting at conferences.”

The O’Sullivans operate a low-cost grass system and have a different farm system where they milk once a day, rather than twice a day, which is more common in Ireland. 

Gillian says, “This eases some of the pressures of being tied down to milking twice a day, seven days a week. We even find we are producing the exact same kilos of milk solids once a day, as we had been producing when milking twice a day.

“We are very serious about developing and adapting to more sustainable means of production, and my husband Neil has even started a Masters in Sustainability through UCD.”

Gillian says sustainability is going to be one of the biggest challenges facing farmers in the next 10 years. 

“When you think about sustainability, everybody automatically thinks about the environment, but sustainability has to do with economic, environmental and social aspects of farming. Trying to get that balance between all three will be the challenge going forward.

“Naturally, carbon emissions and the environment is a big talking point. But if we can incorporate the environmental side into how we farm, alongside factors such as earning an income, not getting burnt out ourselves, and having a herd of healthy cows among it all, I think that will be the balance going forward.”

From the farm to the fork

Gillian says it is also important for consumers to know that a lot of the food products they find in supermarkets have likely been produced by farmers.

“Educating the public and bridging that gap between consumer and farmer is an incredibly important story to tell.

“There are a lot of myths and mistruths surrounding farming. I think that Irish farmers do such an important job for the country in producing really high-quality food and having a low-carbon footprint in how we produce milk and beef. The Farmer of the Year Awards provides the opportunity to share our stories, in terms of informing consumers and the public about the quality of produce that we have on farms here.

“We had visitors to our farm from Holland recently, and we brought them out to our field and their jaws dropped at how green the grass was and how we produce milk and dairy in this country. They couldn’t believe how natural it was! They get a premium in Holland for having animals grazing 100 days a year, whereas in Ireland, our cows graze close to 300 days a year. The quality of products we produce in Ireland is second to none.”

The next generation

Gillian has fond memories of growing up on the farm when she was a child, and she loves the fact that her own children have been able to create similar memories and enjoy getting involved.

“When I grew up, I always had a really positive image of the farm. It was a great place for having fun, a great place to learn about the circle of life and where our food comes from. That’s incredibly important to me and I try to pass that on to our kids, Fionn (8), Hannah (6) and Tim (3).

"The kids have freedom to run around and it's safe for them, but we also try to get them involved in cooking with farm-produced products, making butter to use in baking and cooking.”

Life at the O’Sullivan’s farm revolves around family, “We start milking at 6am, then are back in the house by 8am to have breakfast and get the kids ready for school. We have our own milk for breakfast, which makes the fat content higher at 5pc, than the milk you buy on-the-shelf which is 3.5pc. If you try 5pc fat in a cup of coffee, I can tell you, it is difficult to go back!

“After we’ve dropped the kids to school, we do other tasks such as spreading fertiliser, checking stock or doing whatever needs to be done that day – all before the kids’ school pick-up times!

“The day is busy but a lot of it involves family time, and because of the once-a-day milking system and the flexibility it gives us, we can work in farm tasks around that.”

Female farmers

Gillian is a big advocate of farming as a career and lifestyle which complements family life, and she would also love to see more women involved in the business.

“Women are definitely in the minority when it comes to dairy farming. But there are women out there who are great farmers and getting rid of the stereotype that you have to be physically strong to be a farmer.

“You don’t have to be physically strong in order to be a dairy farmer. My motto is, what I lack in physical strength, I make up for in thinking outside of the box. I try something different to solve a task.

"Encouraging women to get into farming is a big focus of mine. I want to have a positive influence on young women and show them that farming is a very attractive career, even with a young family.”

Whether you’re a male or female farmer, Gillian strongly advises entering, or nominating a farmer you admire, in this year’s Farmer of the Year Awards.

“It’s a terrific opportunity. Why? Because it makes you think about what you’re doing on your farm. It makes you focus on the technical aspects of farming and the awards push you to be even better again. In addition, it opens up many possibilities and opportunities to meet other people in the industry that will have a positive impact on your farm. For us, it’s been a great year and we’re looking forward to the future.”

The Zurich Farm Insurance Farming Independent Farmer of the Year Awards 2019 will take place at The Sheraton Hotel, Athlone on Thursday, November 14.

Category winners will share in a prize fund valued at over €15,000, an invaluable profile in the Farming Independent and, of course, a magnificent trophy to mark their victory.

It’s free to enter and farmers can nominate themselves or be nominated by any third party (Teagasc Advisor, friend, family member, fellow farmer etc). You can now enter here.

Zurich Insurance plc is regulated by the Central Bank of Ireland.

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