FARMING is a vital part of Mayo’s landscape. While Teagasc recently classified 50% of small farms as economically ‘vulnerable’, the culture of farming in the county continues to thrive, writes Jemima Burke.
Jack Vahey is a young farmer in Carrowclogher, Ballintubber. Together with his father Sean, a mechanic, Jack runs a small suckler farm where they rear and breed calves on 35 acres. It’s a passion for Jack.
Only 16 and still at school, most days he will spend over two hours on the farm. Between herding the cattle in, feeding them, cleaning the yard and checking the bulls, calves and heifers, Jack has his evenings full.
Earlier this year, at the Tullamore Show, his heifer, Madonna, was awarded the title of All-Ireland Limousin heifer champion (born in 2017). Madonna, the clear winner in a number of shows, is now worth €15,000.
According to Sean Vahey, his son won’t sell: “She’s only a couple of months old. People have been trying to buy her all year. But Jack won’t sell her. A lot of lads would have sold Madonna and told him he was mad he didn’t take the €4,500 he was offered first. But, as I said, it’s his calf. He doesn’t want to sell her.”
Jack’s reason for not budging? “I like her. I’ll flush her, sell her embryos and show her again next year.”
According to Brian Moran of the Teagasc National Farm Survey, 80% of small farmers say they plan to continue farming despite the low levels of economic viability.
The Vahey family have been farming on the same land for at least four generations.
While the farm was never a full-time occupation for Sean, his father or his grandfather, the Vaheys are one of the 80% who have no intention of selling their land, or leasing it out.
Sean admits that there is ‘pressure on some people to sell their land’ although ‘very rarely will you get people to sell their homeland’.
He added: “It was handed down to me. It cost me nothing. My parents who came before me probably struggled more than I did to make a living, and they never sold it. Their parents before them never sold it.
“I’m sure they had bad days and bad times when they were rearing their kids and families but they managed to hold on to what they had. If they didn’t hold on to the farm we wouldn’t have it today. If I sold the farm Jack wouldn’t have it. That’s the way it is.”
Sean breeds commercial cattle but Jack turned his hand to pedigree breeding in 2013 after a bad experience with sheep farming.
“I bought sheep and they were an absolute disaster! Every day you’d look out the window and they’d be in someone else’s field.”
“I had them for about a year, but they had to go.”
With his sheep money, and after ‘a big conference’ the night before with neighbours and family, Jack settled on a Limousin heifer for €2,500 at a Roscommon sale. Limousins are a French breed of highly muscled beef cattle.
His first investment would have rich rewards for Jack.
As he says himself: “She’s well paid her way. We sold her first calf for €3,200. Her second one was a heifer. She’s still out there. The third one was a bull. We sold him for €3,900.”
Now that Madonna, born in March of this year, has won her fair share of red rosettes Jack knows the satisfaction that comes from successful cattle breeding. The 16-year-old, who is the Tullamore National Young Stockperson of the Year, was invited to attend the National Ploughing Championships this year at the request of the Irish Limousin Society.
Although Sean is delighted with his son’s success he often reminds him that making a living from a small farm is not a very feasible option.
“Most farmers have an off-farm job now. Unless you have a huge amount of land, if you don’t have an off-farm job with farming in this country, it’s not paying. You buy the cattle, you feed them. You go to the mart to sell them. You might not get enough to cover the amount of feed you’ve put into them.
“If farmers were not getting payments and grants they wouldn’t survive at all. Jack needs to get a job at something other than farming or he’ll be hungry!”
Martin Gilvarry, Mayo IFA chairman, speaking to The Connaught Telegraph, said: “There are more farmers with off-farm jobs than ever. They run their farms as well as being committed to their jobs.”
He indicated that small farmers need more support: “We produce and export quality. If you produce quality you’re entitled to be paid for it. Basic payments have to be there because the production costs are high.”
Gilvarry holds that ‘education is the way forward’ and that young people in farming should be encouraged in their careers.
Fifth-year student Jack has his own plans.
“If I got the points I’d do veterinary. That would be my off-farm job, something to go back on if I need it. I want to get more pedigrees in and a few less of Dad’s commercials! A bit more land maybe!”
Jack is thankful for the great friendships he has formed in farming, especially with those Limousin breeders who helped him find his way three years ago.
It’s clear that farming is Jack Vahey’s first love. It ‘comes natural’ to him.
While small farms in the west do struggle to survive there is nothing more natural than a father-and-son keeping up the family farm. As Gilvarry puts it: “Farming is part of our nature. It’s who we are. We need to get out there and let our voices be heard.”