In this week’s Women in Ag segment, Isabel Auld, who runs a sheep and beef enterprise with her father, discusses organic farming.
My name is Isabel Auld; I am 22 and from Fethard, Co Wexford. I come from three generations of farmers.
Our farm is based in Fethard-on-Sea, County Wexford. It is a 120-acre farm divided into three sections. My father, William, runs the farm himself without any additional labour, but with help from myself, my sister and my mum.
When I was younger, dad was heavily involved in breeding ewes and lambing, but then changed to keeping store lambs in 2006. As a result, we could have up to 250 store lambs during the winter.
In recent years, we began buying young Blackface Mountain sheep from West Cork & Kerry, keeping them as store lambs over the winter and then selling them directly to the factory (Irish County Meats, Camolin) in spring.
However, this year is the first without sheep, as dad is slowly trying to phase into retirement.
Organic farming: Beef and sheep
Beef was always our primary enterprise. We would usually have 40 cattle spread between our fields or sheds for winter housing. We buy them as yearlings, keep them for a 1.5-years and then sell them directly to the factory (Slaney Meats Bunclody).
Breeds have varied over the years; we usually like to incorporate a mixed herd of Limousin-X, Aberdeen Angus-X, with some Simmental-X, and have always varied between heifers and bullocks.
This year, like the sheep, dad has cut down on stock, and at the moment, we only have 17 Aberdeen Angus bullocks, which will sell come summertime, and we will buy new yearlings in autumn.
Dad grew up and spent his whole life working on the farm and eventually inherited it from his father in the 1980s.
Since then, he has made our farm his own through converting to organic in 1990 and were fully organic by 1993, with the Organic Trust who we have been with since the beginning.
Furthermore, we have made further improvements like upgrading the housing and handling facilities and upgrading machinery.
My grandad was not impressed with dad converting to organic. He thought it was a step backwards at the time, but dad proved that you could be just as productive organically.
Dad converted from conventional because he wanted to work more with nature than opposing it. Also, he wanted to hand the farm over in the future with a clear conscience, knowing he did the best for the land through his practices.
We did not convert to organics for economic reasons, as back in 1993, there were no organic grants or subsidies as there are today.
Benefits include less harm inflicted on the environment through lack of pesticide use, reduced reliance on veterinary inputs and antibiotics, and the ability to be self-sufficient, all while having a clear conscience knowing you are doing your best for the land through your practices.
We have seen our land thrive through our practice, with more species living on and in the grass, benefitting the soil without chemical interference.
Due to our farm’s fragmented nature and dad’s environmentally conscious mindset, he decided to plant half of our land in forestry on the most unproductive sections of land.
In 1994, dad planted a plot of Sitka Spruce in the poorest sections of the land, then two plots of Oak and Beech in two stages during 1998 & 2006 in all the remaining fields, resulting now in a 60-acre biodiverse plot of forestry.
We aim to never clear-fell the forest we have established, though it is nowhere near maturity yet. It is already a thriving habitat that a lot of wildlife has moved into.
Naturally, we will have to remove some trees. Still, we aim to implement continuous cover management to ensure the continuation of the habitat for the species that have moved in and to allow the natural regeneration of new trees, all while acting as a carbon sink.
It is our intention and dad’s retirement plan in the coming years to plant more of our land in forestry, keeping only a small portion of land for potential grazing or stock.
Our daily routine varies depending on what stock we have. This year has been much more relaxed, with days only consisting of taking care of the few cattle through feeding and bedding, with things picking up in the summer when we cut hay and silage for our own use and to sell.
This has allowed dad and I to take the time to plan for the future of the farm and start putting measures in place.
Also, it has provided us with time to start on well overdue jobs and farmyard maintenance to prepare it for a new future.
We are also undertaking fun projects together, such as our current rebuilding and restoration of my grandfather’s Massey Ferguson 135, which has been lying idle in the shed for some time.
I am grateful for this period of calm on the farm, whereby I can learn more from my father and create a plan with his blessing to continue what he has started.
Since the beginning, my favourite thing about farming has been getting to spend so much time with my dad and learning from him first-hand. Whatever task we are doing, I do it happily as I get to do it with him.
I have always looked up to my dad and all he has achieved on the farm, so it is an honour for me to be part of it and see him so eager for me to be involved and care about the farm’s continuation.
I am currently in my final year of studying International Development and Food Policy at UCC, Cork.
Though my degree is not a direct route into farming, it does allow me to tailor my interests towards farming and food policy.
I get to focus a lot on EU agricultural policy and decision-making and rural development, and sustainable agricultural development. But seeing as my course is multi-disciplinary, I have become interested in various global issues.
This time last year, I was meant to move to India for five months to undertake an internship through my degree with an international human rights organisation.
Sadly that did not happen due to Covid-19. However, I still managed to conduct some remote research for the organisation, and I am since newly open to a potential career in that field.
Women in ag
As I have not had the pleasure of being the primary manager of the farm yet, I cannot say I have experienced and bias first hand.
We are well aware that it is a male-dominated industry in the EU for sure, which provides an interesting contrast to that of developing countries, where women are the primary farmers and decisions makers of farm households.
I believe it is crucial to have more women involved in decision-maker roles regarding agricultural policy within Ireland and the EU. How will more women be incorporated and supported in agriculture if we do not have a seat at the table?
Targeted funding through programmes incorporating women into rural development schemes to ensure greater access to resources could also prove beneficial in closing the evident gender gap, not just in Ireland but globally.
I would love to contribute towards a future where resources and access to land is not biased, and women’s roles in agriculture are enhanced and celebrated
For now, the farm is still in dad’s hands and will be for the next while, so I can enjoy building a career and travelling.
My degree is so broad, and the main reason I love it. In the next few years, I am to gain experience and form a potential career with global NGOs abroad, ideally in areas of agricultural development, gender empowerment in agriculture and sustainable livelihoods.
Eventually, I will return to Ireland, as this is where I want to spend my life, and aim to pursue a related career here while living on and managing the farm at home.
Furthermore, I will be obtaining my Green Cert in the coming years, either now after graduating or in the future when I return to Ireland.
My time as a young person in agriculture is only beginning, but it is happening at such a pivotal time in the era of changing agriculture.
Ultimately, I want to continue my father’s legacy here on the farm while making it my own and adapting it further to the ever-changing agricultural climate.
It is a no-brainer for me to continue farming organically in the future. I think that the greater adoption of more sustainable and diverse agricultural practices is essential to ensure the future of environmentally and socially sound agriculture, as well as ensuring the sustainability of the livelihoods of rural communities.
I ideally would like to see the majority of the farm planted in forestry, allowing me to manage that habitat while potentially incorporating agroforestry practices within the forest.
If I was to manage my own stock in the future, I could see myself leaning towards sheep as I have the most experience and interest in them.
My aim is to farm diversely and organically while potentially generating an agri-business out of the land and the forestry, to contribute towards the community and rural development of the area and my own livelihoods sustainability.
Organic farming in Ireland
I have been lucky to have been raised on a productive organic farm. However, despite the push from the EU & CAP calling for greater adoption of organic practices, the uptake has been slow.
I can see the wariness for farmers to convert from conventional methods to organic farming. However, we can no longer rely on a food system that revolves on a high dependency on intensive or environmentally damaging practices anymore.
I want to see a future of farming in Ireland and the EU that incorporates greater multi-disciplinary action, ensuring a more sustainable future of food, and creating an environment where farmers can find themselves secure in their livelihoods and not heavily reliant on direct payments.
Are you involved in organic farming? To share your story, email – [email protected]
In conversation with Catherina Cunnane