With so much talk about post-quota dairy expansion and large scale dairy units which have hundreds of cows, there are fears for the future of Ireland’s family farm model.
How fit would you have to be to run that farm?
A dairy farm family at Nohoval, Co Cork, the Kingstons are the recent winners of the RTÉ TV show, Ireland’s Fittest Family.
My drive past the vast span of sheds towards the house revealed evidence that I was approaching the home of a very active family. A rugby ball lay on the lawn on the left, two goal posts on the lawn on the right, and a line-up of runners and football boots on the window sill beside the door.
The Kingstons milk 450 cows, supplying liquid milk to Clona. As well as the family labour, they also employ two full-time staff. Peter and Tracey Kingston have four children — Jessica, aged 22, Richard, 20, Luke, 17 and Rebecca, 13.
Jessica is a nurse in the Bons Secours Hospital, Cork. Richard is completing a three-year bachelor of science in agriculture course at Darrara College, Clonakilty. Luke is a fifth-year student in Bandon Grammar, while Rebecca is a second-year student.
As I arrive at their door, I am met by Peter.
He is just in from the yard, for a quick cup of tea, after the morning jobs. Tracey is in the kitchen, organising for a busy sporting weekend.
“Luke had two matches already this week. He has a hockey match today. Jessica has a hockey match today, as well. I must go up to teach swimming, later.
“Tomorrow, Peter coaches the Kinsale under-18s rugby team. Luke has Munster training. That’s only the start of the weekend. This house is like revolving doors, in and out to different events.”
With such a busy schedule for the family farm and the sporting activity, how did competing on Ireland’s Fittest Family come about? “Well, I watched it last year,” says Peter, “and then the Kinsale Rugby Club sent out a flyer for anyone who would be interested. I signed them up for it without telling them, because I knew they were athletic, and it was well worth a go.”
With four members needed in each team, Peter signed up Jessica, Richard and Luke.
They all are active in sports. Jessica played hockey with Trinity, while at college, and has rejoined Bandon Hockey Club, since her return to Cork.
Richard is an accomplished rugby player. He has captained the Munster A schools rugby team and played with UCC and his home club, Kinsale.
Luke plays rugby and hockey with both his school and with clubs. In the summer, all the family play tag rugby together.
Peter wants to keep active, too. “I play badminton some evenings. I also like to go shooting, and I am involved in rugby coaching. I would do more, but I have a bad knee.”
The knee injury meant that he was curtailed in training for the TV programme. “I trained for 30 minutes for three nights a week, after the evening milking.”
The Kingston family were coached for the Ireland’s Fittest Family by retired international hurdler and multi major championship medalist, Derval O’Rourke.
The family first met Derval at the competition and were in regular contact with her throughout.
“Derval was great. She is a good coach, because she understands people. She knows exactly what she is working with,” Peter says.
“We were quietly confident. On the first day, we thought top four was a realistic target. As the competition went on, we wanted to get into the final, and, once we were there, we knew that it would be open, and anyone could win.”
Were they happy with their portrayal on the TV show, as dairy farmers with natural fitness? “It meant the competition didn’t worry about us. They saw us as just the farmers,” Tracey says. “The show never mentioned their previous sporting achievements, which meant they were never seen as favourites.”
Quietly confident though they were, the Kingston family had to win every eliminator, at the end of every round of competition, to stay in the show. “The toughest was the eliminator race against the Rice family, from Wicklow. We saw them as the favourites.” The cross-country race was a tough 5km, including swampland.
I asked Peter if coming from a family dairy farm was an advantage on the show?
“No-one says ‘no’ to anything. Whatever needs to be done is done. Also, farming teaches you to readjust. You are always faced with problems, and you need to think on the spot.
“When I am walking from the back door of the house to the yard, I am always thinking what needs to be done and how we should do it. You have to be innovative. You start ploughing a field and there’s a wet patch in it. You need to make decisions on how to deal with it, and it was the same on the show. That all stood to us in competition,” Peter says.
In the final, the Kingstons were again fighting against the odds. Tracey says: “What no-one knows is that Richard had a sprained ankle for the final. He was told not to compete, but no one could stop him. Peter’s knee was also at him.”
Peter talked me through their final tactics. “There was a 10-foot wall at the end. We knew that was the key to winning the race. We had got stuck on a similar obstacle in a previous round. We had agreed, before the race, that I was going to be the first up, and that Richard was to be with me, to get me up.
“Once we both were on the wall, we would pull Jessica and Luke over. We knew the Mulhares (the other finalist family) could underestimate the wall, because they had only ever previously competed on it wearing running spikes, which were not allowed for the final. There was such a satisfaction in beating them.”
The competition was filmed at various locations around Ireland, between July and September. This helped the Kingstons, because it was outside their busy calving season, from September to mid-April. But it also created a problem, because it clashed with two months (one per month) when their two staff were on annual leave.
This is where the family farm structure is unique; enter George Kingston, Peter’s father. At 76 years, he is still active on the farm. “We call him the Inspector,” Peter says. “He goes around seeing what needs to be done and keeps us all on our toes.”
“My father did most of the milking when we were away at the competition. Most of the events were from 8am to 10pm on a Saturday. We would do the jobs on Friday morning and travel to location on Friday evening, and return, after the competition, on Saturday night.
“We weren’t back from one location in Connemara — by the time we got cleaned, fed and left — until 3.30am on the Sunday morning, and we were up milking cows again at 7am.”
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