Farmer Dermot’s fields of dreams

The optimistic Young Farmer of the Year is keen to embrace new technology, says Barbara Scully

Farmer Dermot’s fields of dreams

DERMOT O’CONNOR is a young man on a mission. In the last five years, he has changed career, built a house, got married, had a baby and on Tuesday night he won Macra na Feirme 2012 FBD Young Farmer of the Year.

“I’m still overwhelmed to be honest. To get through to the semi-final was great, but then to make the final six, ...”

There were 27 semi-finalists all of whom attended the final which was held at Kinnity Castle in Co Offaly on Tuesday. The finalists were announced over lunch and the chosen six were interviewed by a panel of seven judges.

“There were only three at the semi-finals, so to face seven was daunting,” says O’Connor. “But they were all very nice and it was casually done. There was no Simon Cowell on the panel, thankfully.”

Dermot was announced as winner after the banquet that evening. “It was a great night. I had a sore jaw from all the smiling for photos.”

Dermot will receive a €3,000 travel bursary which he hopes to use to go and gain some foreign insights into farming. “New Zealand would be top of my list, or maybe America ... we’ll see.” He was also presented with a specially commissioned piece of art by Irish artist Liam Butler.

Dermot O’Connor grew up, one of seven children, on the family dairy farm in Shanagolden Co Limerick. Although farming was in his blood, Dermot chose to study civil engineering at Limerick Institute of Technology and he graduated in 2005. He spent the following two years working in the construction industry in Limerick. “But I always helped out on the farm at weekends when I was at college and working.”

In 2007 his father was considering applying for a grant to build extra sheds in order to expand the herd from 64 to about 96 cows, and father and son had a chat about Dermot working on the farm full-time.

It seems that Dermot didn’t need a lot of persuasion. Having already gained a degree, he took his agricultural training qualification, known as the Green Cert, over 10 weeks and in 2008 formally joined the business.

Dermot’s passion for farming is obvious and this, combined with his previous experience and his eagerness to use technology, makes him a formidable farmer. “With my engineering background I have the kind of mentality that means that if there’s a problem, I look at it and solve it. The first thing I wanted to do with the farm was to reduce costs.”

He has a cost control planner on his laptop which helps him to keep up-to-date with expenditure.

Good grass is vital to the running of a successful dairy farm and is essential in protecting Ireland’s agri food reputation, and so Dermot volunteered his farm as a host farm for a grass budgeting project. “I have a small quadrant of grass, about a half metre square, and every week I cut and weigh it. This enables me to work out how much grass the field has and therefore how much my cows have to eat, or how much I have to supplement.”

Through soil sampling, Dermot also discovered that his grass was not as good as it might be, so he invested in soil fertility. “Although there is an initial cost involved, it will enable me to work towards a low-cost model, keeping my cows on grass as long as possible.” And he has it all worked out so that by 2016 his farm will go from an original eight tonnes of grass to 12 tonnes. This in turn will enable him to work towards his business plan of boosting his herd from 100 to about 150 within four years.

It all seems very scientific and well-planned. “Well I think you’d get left behind if you didn’t use all the technology and knowledge available to boost profitability.” But what about finding the money for investment: are banks more willing to loan to farmers? “I found them very open. The agricultural sector seems to be an area they want to invest in. I think agriculture will be the backbone of economic recovery for Ireland.”

Dermot and his wife Hazelle were married in 2010 and baby Donncha is now 9 months old. Hazelle is on maternity leave, although she is due to return to work shortly, but for now Dermot enjoys having the company of his family when he breaks from his work for lunch. “I get up about 6.30am and finish for the day about 7pm. Now and again I put the little man to bed and I spend evenings relaxing with my wife. Well, except for Wednesday, when I have soccer training.” He plays with Creeves Celtic.

In summer he takes Saturday mornings off by employing a ‘relief milker’. This system also enables him to take some holiday time off during the year. “It’s easy to find relief on the farm, lots of local young people are interested in farming and keen to gain experience.”

Macra na Feirme national president Alan Jagoe spoke of how the Young Farmer of the Year Award recognises the commitment of this generation of young farmers to both the agricultural industry and to their own communities. “Some of the indications from Government sources are worrying for young farmers with taxation and other threats looming. Productive young farmers, given the opportunity, will do far more for economic recovery rather than any capital taxation measures to generate national income. The Minister for Agriculture must support young farmers who see their future in farming and help them make it a viable career path.”

This all sounds very different from the old traditional model of family farms where families all muddled in together and making a profit was notoriously difficult. Dermot O’Connor seems very much to be master of his farm rather than slave to it.

But along with embracing all that technology and science can offer the modern farmer, he is keen to stress that his is a family business handed down through his father from his grandfather. In time he hopes that Donncha will take over the O’Connor dairy herd in Shanagolden.

But, until then, our newly-crowned Young Farmer of the Year will no doubt continue to focus on getting the very best results from his land and his cows. And the encouraging thing is that he is not alone. It seems there is a new generation of young, enthusiastic, progressive young men and women taking farming forward without losing the quality we’re renowned for. Farming could just be the engine that drives us out of the mess we’re in.

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