MILK prices may be low at the moment but spirits were high amongst those attending the inaugural West Cork Farming Awards on Sunday last, organised by The Southern Star and the Celtic Ross Hotel, in Rosscarbery. The event was a long-overdue celebration of all that is good in the agricultural community in West Cork, which is such an intrinsic part of local life.
Central to the celebration were the people who make things happen in the farming community and in agri-business locally and who are key players in producing the food for which West Cork has gained a growing international reputation and which attracts visitors to the area as a result, boosting the local economy beyond the farm gate. The 2015 West Cork Farming Awards look set to be the first of many as there are so many people who deserve recognition and the initial awards only managed to honour a relatively small but important cross-section of people, whose achievements would stand up nationally as well as internationally on their own merits.
The hallmark of all the people who won the four categories, along with the runners-up, has been hard work and dedication to the tasks at hand. People involved in agriculture work long hours and there are times when this is rewarding, financially, and others not so when they probably wonder why on earth they are doing this.
The sense one got from the awards ceremony on Sunday is that it is not all about the money – whatever they make is hard-earned – but has more to do with the vocation that is farming because it is certainly not a job in the conventional sense. It has also become a business and this involves constant planning and appraisal and, inevitably, some risk-taking.
Farmers nowadays have to be far more educated about what they are doing and need to constantly keep up to date with the latest trends. Even though advisory body Teagasc has been stretched in recent years because of the government’s public sector recruitment embargo, the organisation has given the best service it can to farmers under the circumstances and guided them through many changes and new developments, setting up discussion groups dealing with the different areas of agriculture so that farmers can get together and share ideas and insights and help one another expand their enterprises and achieve the efficiencies necessary to compete, for example, on the worldwide dairy markets at a time of price volatility which coincided with the abolition of EU milk quotas this year.
There are also several private advisory companies whose assistance farmers can also pay to avail of. A lot of form-filling for new schemes has to be done online nowadays, so help with this and keeping up with constantly-changing requirements is necessary so that farmers can get on with doing what they know best, which is farming the land.
In areas such as West Cork, the family farm is the core unit of agricultural operations and most of these have been passed down through generations. Every generation would like to make its mark in improving the family farm before passing it on to the next one and that was clearly being achieved by all the farmers shortlisted for our awards, male and female, across an age range from early twenties to late eighties.
There were inspiring stories such as that of Young Farmer award winner Aidan McCarthy from Schull, whose herd was wiped out by BSE and who switched from beef to dairy and now milks 146 cows. Hall of Fame winner Peggy O’Brien of Lislevane was left a widow with seven young children to rear and a big farm to run when her husband was killed in a farm accident in 1979, but ignoring advice to sell the cattle and lease the land, she kept the enterprise going until her eldest son was old enough to take it over.
Also recognised were agri-business achievements, both locally and internationally, such as that of the Carbery Group, led by Dan MacSweeney, with its worldwide ingredients and flavours business, Synergy, that has branches in the United States, United Kingdom, Brazil and Thailand run from head office in Ballineen. This success ultimately benefits the West Cork farmer members of the four dairy co-ops – Bandon, Barryroe, Drinagh and Lisavaird – and helps them get a better milk price, which is very welcome, especially now when prices have dropped significantly.
The Innovation and Vision category saw Connolly Dairy Services in Timoleague honoured for the manner in which the business was built up over the years by Sean Connolly, who passed away last year, and is now being carried on by his son, Dan, who continues to expand it and keep up with all the latest developments.
These West Cork Farming Awards, while admittedly long overdue, were better late than never and – hopefully – it will be onwards and upwards for all involved locally in farming and agri-business, which are such pivotal elements of the rural economy and, indeed, society in general.