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Catherina Cunnanehttps://www.thatsfarming.com/
Catherina Cunnane hails from a fifth-generation drystock and specialised pedigree suckler enterprise in Co. Mayo. She currently holds the positions of editor and general manager at That's Farming, having joined the company in 2015.
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20-year-old farmer beats cancer during Covid-19 pandemic

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In this week’s Women in Ag segment, Eimear Spain discusses her cancer battle, organic dairy farming and her studies at Kildalton Agricultural College. 

In late February 2020, at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, Eimear Spain was diagnosed with stage 3 Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.

Her family-run organic dairy enterprise in Coolderry, County Offaly helped the 20-year-old cope, during recovery following what she described as “the most challenging year of my life, both physically and mentally”.

The cancer survivor, who is involved in the family farm’s running and is studying a Level 6 Advanced Certificate in Agriculture (Dairy Herd Management) told That’s Farming about her whirlwind journey over the past twelve months.

“Cancer is a thing that nobody ever thinks about getting, definitely not at a young age. I had to face 12 sessions of chemotherapy, many hospital and doctor appointments and had overnight stays in hospital.”

“The positivity from my family and friends got me through it. To be honest, I will never be able to thank them enough for what they did for me. I am glad to be on this side of it, and I am happy to say I am a cancer survivor.”

“I always struggled with my mental health. My mam, Siobhan, would always say that I would talk to animals more than I would talk to people. During my cancer journey, I was unable to farm, but it never stopped me from doing what I love.”

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Eimear Spain

Beating cancer 
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Chemotherapy made the young farmer unwell, as she underwent treatments bi-weekly; however, during her somewhat good weeks, when she had a small amount of energy, she would go out to the farm.

“I missed out on silage season last year. On the day, they were making silage, I got my mam to bring me down. I got up on the harvester beside my brother, Michael for, some loads, but I had to get down again as I tired quickly.”

“The pandemic, without doubt, has hit every single person differently, but I was lucky enough to have the farm as an escape. I found it difficult being unable to see my grandparents, family members and my friends. My only contact with them was a phone call. I missed the simple things like being able to give my granny and grandad a hug.”

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Farming

The 20-year-old is now actively farming, assisting her father, Eamonn and her brothers, Michael, and Ruairi, on the family dairy enterprise.

Her father inherited the farm from Eimear’s gran-aunt, May, who worked the farm all her life and sadly passed away in 2019.

Woodview Farm comprises British Friesian and Norweigan-cross-British Friesian cows. The family changed to producing organic milk in January 2021 after a 2-year conversion period. and milk all-year-round to supply Glenlisk. They calve 50 cows in spring, followed by 30 in the winter, rearing all replacement heifers and selling bull calves at 2-weeks-old.

“This year, we have 80 cows and 24 replacement heifers which will calve at the end of this month. Besides, we have 30 Friesian heifer weanlings. As of now, there are 37 cows calved.”

Satisfaction 

Spain is responsible for animals’ health and welfare, operating machinery, milking, and calving cows, paperwork, and other general husbandry duties.

“I enjoy being out in the fresh air every day, surrounded by green fields. As of now, I don’t exhibit cattle at agricultural shows, but it is something that I would love to do in the future.

This year, I will purchase a pedigree Dairy Shorthorn heifer calf to rear myself. In the past, I have reared Herefords and sold them at Templemore Mart.”

“I am most passionate about caring for livestock on the farm. Furthermore, I have a lot of passion for the health and welfare of every animal. I enjoy seeing a new-born calf and how they grow to be a part of the herd producing milk.”

“Also, I am passionate about having several pets around the farm. I enjoy seeing all their personalities come through. This would not have come about only for my gran-aunt who I looked up to a lot.”

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College

Spain is now spending additional time on her family farm as she is how she is completing her placement module as part of her studies at Kildalton Agricultural College in Piltown, County Kilkenny, due to her health.

She enrolled in the course in 2019, following the completion of her Leaving Certificate, and will graduate in May 2021.

“The course involves practicals, classroom learning and work placement. This year hasn’t been too bad as from September to the middle of January, we had online Zoom classes. Now, we are on a 16-week placement for the rest of the year.”

“Last year, I was lucky to get to do my two-month placement module with Joe and Karen Smyth and their family, which turned out to be most enjoyable. I learned so much, as up to this, I had only experience with working at home. I enjoyed learning the day-to-day running of another farm with the same enterprise.”

Hereford, dairy-to-beef, grassland management

Future plans

Eimear intends to spread her wings in the agricultural field and is considering furthering her agricultural studies. Besides, she relishes the idea of gaining agricultural experience oversea with New Zealand, Australia, and America on her travel bucket list.

She has some simple words of advice for those who are considering a career in the sector: “The advice I would give to anyone looking to pursue agriculture is if you love it, follow your dreams and do not let anyone tell you otherwise.”

“Sometimes, still today, women are put down for being involved in the agricultural sector. Some often tell us it’s not a girl’s job, or girls can’t drive tractors. In agriculture, gender doesn’t matter, as we are equal and able to do the same work as the next.” Eimear Spain concluded.

To share your story, email – catherina@thatsfarming.com

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