‘I WAS always interested in the farming,’ said dairy farmer Thomas Roycroft, when I met him and his wife, Catherine, and two of their daughters, Claire, 10, and Emma,12, on a sunny Saturday morning at the family home and farm in Gubbeen, just west of Schull.
Thomas and Catherine also have another daughter, Ellen, nearly 19, and a son, Kieran, 17. I was treated to tea and freshly-baked scones as we chatted in the spacious kitchen of this beautifully remodelled farmhouse and I really enjoyed my glimpse into the busy lives of what is clearly a very close family.
Thomas is the second generation to farm this land, his father having bought the farm in the 1950s, moving from not too far away in Dunbeacon. One of four, and the only boy, Thomas was anxious to get started in farming after completing the Inter Cert.
Too young at 15 to attend Darrara, Thomas made the decision to go to Pallaskenry Agricultural College in Co Limerick, which is still owned and managed by the Salesian Fathers. He studied here for two years before returning home to farm in Gubbeen.
Thomas is milking cows and rearing followers and, like everyone, in the sector is finding it challenging in the current climate. ‘Milk prices at the moment are at rock bottom, it’s costing the same to produce as it’s making.’
The abolition of quotas has left room for expansion though he feels it is risky to do so. ‘It costs a lot of money to expand and there are possibly a lot of people in trouble with that now with the price of milk being what it is. It is back to the levels of 30 or 40 years ago, while the cost of living has increased massively.’
As Catherine pointed out, ‘the consumer hasn’t benefited from the drop in milk prices either, so someone is making money, but it’s not the farmer.’ Though Ireland has a tiny percentage of the world market, Thomas believes we do have some advantages. ‘Our climate is an advantage and our system is grass-based, which is cheaper than a system that keeps animals in all year round. Teagasc and other farm organisations are always pushing to promote our grass-based system.’
Thomas supplements the farm income by working part-time as a rural worker and finds it generally works well around farm life. ‘Depending on the time of year on the farm, it can be demanding, but the work is flexible with no set days and we can work around the farming as long as the hours get done.’
Catherine keeps on top of the paperwork side of the business and has found the move online helpful. ‘I think for registering calves, the online system is fantastic. It is difficult for older people, but even with a little bit of computer skills, you can do what you need to do.’
Thomas would like to see the farm carry on into the next generation and their youngest, Claire, is showing the most interest so far. ‘It influences your decisions yourself going along, if you didn’t have someone interested, you’d wonder more: will I, won’t I?’ Catherine agrees: ‘If you can see a future for the farm, you work harder to make it profitable and keep it going.’
Despite the challenges, Thomas would encourage anyone into farming if they had the interest. ‘It’s a good way to bring up a family, you have more freedom, I enjoy experiencing all the seasons; you’re your own boss and, if you like the outdoors, it’s a great way of life.’ Catherine sees planning time off as a big challenge and also switching off, but both feel blessed with good neighbours.
Outside of family and farming, Thomas’s great love is hurling and he is one of the coaches of the Fastnet Gaels U18 team.