4 September 1998

We change to survive say Eire farm couple

For our occasional series on the lives of

farming families abroad, Tessa Gates

talked to a couple in Eire who have

reappraised the way they farm and found

the time to enjoy a profitable venture

NO business will survive if it stays the same, says Noel Fitzgerald and certainly his farm business has seen some changes in the last couple of years, and more are likely to come.

Noel farms 37ha (98 acres) with his wife Lori at Castle Gregory, Co Kerry, Eire. They have three children, sons Thomas (15) and Cian (14) and eight-year-old daughter Elizabeth.

Lori is very much an equal partner, both on the work front and in decision making on this 98-cow dairy farm. They work well together but feel it probably elicits a few comments when Lori attends meetings with Noel.

"Am I known as the one who has to bring the wife?" asks Noel. If he is it doesnt bother him. "At the Advisory Board seminar on calf rearing, 30 or 40 farmers attended and not one wife, yet she would be doing the calf rearing! If you both have the same skill levels you can both thrash out problems."

"They miss out on so much – a business is much easier to run if you can toss ideas round together," says Lori.

"I think it will change, farmers we are meeting now have wives that are involved but round here the wives dont go to farmers meetings."

"Neither of us is from farming families really and we see this as a major plus as we dont carry any baggage," adds Lori, who comes from Winnipeg, Canada and met Noel when she was visiting her sister, who is married to a local man. Noels parents ran a pub and a shop in the village but his mother owned the land he now farms and it was eventually left to him.

"It was a second enterprise – land with a bit of beef on it. I came farming here straight from school," explains Noel, adding, "I couldnt see myself working in an office.

"In 1979-80 dairying was the only viable option and we were just establishing ourselves when quotas came in and that put the lid on things – we started two or three years too late. The farm was not developed fully and then set in a time warp. Our quota was 45,000gal and we had to lease another farm to get an extra 35,000gal.

&#42 Slogging away

"For the next 15 years we slogged away in the old style, accepting that if you farm you work hard and long, but then two New Zealanders came here and put ideas into our heads and we havent looked back since."

The Fitzgeralds embraced the ideas with enthusiasm and extol them with the zeal of born-again farmers. They have taken the best of the New Zealand system, adapted it to an Irish system with the goal of farming for profit rather than production. They changed their whole system of extended grazing and now their cows are grazed on 12.14ha (30-acre) blocks and fed totally on grass and grass silage.

All stock is outwintered, the cows are dried off in Nov/Dec and calve in February and the Fitzgeralds have three months free from milking. They have gained time and energy, the cows have grown thick coats and animal health bills are minimal. Money that would be earmarked for animal housing is potentially free for more profitable investment and as least-cost producers they are less vulnerable to industry downturns.

"We used to start calving on New Years Day and would milk 365 days a year. The cows were housed from Nov 1 until at least March or April and fed lots of concentrates. It was high-input labour-intensive farming with no time for the family or anything else," says Noel. "Now everything is so compartmentalised. With the calving we are busy then finished. The two of us handle 65 calves in three weeks."

&#42 Fewer errors

"By simplifying the system you get things done and there is less chance for error. For so many years we were killing ourselves and talking to people who couldnt see a light at the end of the tunnel, now we have more free time to spend educating ourselves and meeting like-minded people."

Some of these like-minded people are the farmers in the Kerry Farm Discussion Group. "We have had a busy couple of years setting it up," says Noel. "Members are eager, open-minded people keen to grow their businesses rather than stay as they are.

"We meet with other discussion groups and attend seminars. We educate ourselves on financial planning, investment and tax management.

"People might think that is all very well for us, as we have good land in a mild area but there are people in our group with bog wet farms and it is amazing what they have achieved," says Lori..

The Fitzgeralds have amazed themselves at how far they have come on their own farm in the past 18 months, and they are ambitious to go further. This autumn they are making a month-long working trip to New Zealand, following the calving pattern down the country on farms run by the top 10% of producers. "These are the people we can learn from," explains Noel.

"Here on the farm we feel we have reached as far as we can go stocking-wise and the terrain of the land nearby is such that it will come on the market without quota. We think we might like to go into partnership with someone else – perhaps who owns land but doesnt want to sell or to run it, either – and put what we have learned here into place on a bigger scale, perhaps in England or Wales," explains Noel. "We would like to manage it and put in 300-400 cows. We feel we can do better with our money than putting it into land."

The Fitzgeralds would not sell their own farm but dont necessarily expect their children to take it on. "If they do it will be because they really want to, not because it is an easy option and in any case we will be too young to hand over the reins when the boys are 19 or 20," says Noel (42). However the couple dont intend to work until they drop.

"We have got another 10 years when we can push ourselves really hard and then we will step back and enjoy an early retirement," he says.

The Fitzgeralds face their future in farming with positive enthusiasm which is refreshing to encounter. "If you set long-term goals and put some effort into achieving them, life is so much easier – you see everything falling into place," says Lori.

Noel and Lori, seen here with daughter Elizabeth, share the work and decision making on their dairy farm where changes to grassland and

herd management have resulted in more time to

enjoy family life.