That’s Farming editor, Catherina Cunnane, in conversation with Emma Tobin (31), Ardfinnan, Co Tipperary, as part of this week’s women in ag segment. She discusses her tillage farming roots, initial desires to become a veterinary nurse, studying agriculture at Munster Technological University and how a stint across the waters in the UK paved the way for her career as a sheep technician with Kildalton Agricultural College.
“I live with my partner and daughter in Kilsheelan, Co Tipperary and am the third generation on our farm.
My grandfather originally started a pig farm which my dad then took over, but in the early 2000s, he decided to get out of pigs and keep the farm going solely as a tillage enterprise.
My earliest memories of farming would have to be with pigs. I always had the job of nursing the weaker bonhams and helping dad with moving them round and feeding.
That is probably what sparked my interest in the livestock side of farming more than the arable side, really.
We are currently farming a mix of organic and conventional tillage. The organic is our own, with our main produce being oats for Flahahans along with a crop of organic beans, which we are trying for the first time this year.
The conventional then is rented land that we took on this year and have just taken a crop of spring barley off of it, which has averaged 3.5tn/acre, which we are very happy with.
We converted our own land to organic just over ten years ago now. At the time, there was a huge gap in the market, so we decided to take a chance on it, a chance that has very luckily paid off.
Converting to organic was a big step, but we would not convert back after seeing the benefits it has had to our land, the environment, and the wildlife.
I suppose the main people involved in Tobin Farms are myself, my dad Tom, and brother Seán, but all our family are involved, really.
My younger brother, Mike, does a lot, both in and out of the busy seasons with driving and maintenance, while our sister, Alice, does the accounts.
Our mother, Bernie, is the glue that holds us all together –she’s the hidden gem in the whole operation.
I will hold my hand up and say I would not be the best at driving tractors, so my primary responsibilities are looking at crop rotations, what cover crops will work well, looking at our nitrates, completing derogations and any other paperwork that we need to do.
I first went for veterinary nursing in 2009, but after the first year, I decided it was not for me. My interest lay in large animals more than small, so I went back and did my Leaving Cert again.
In 2011, I enrolled on the agriculture course at Cork Institute of Technology (Currently Munster Technological University).
I studied for a BscHon in Agriculture from 2011 to 2015, and once I graduated, I stayed working in the veterinary practice I had worked in while in college.
Then in August 2016, I moved to Somerset in the U.K., where I was hired by Bridgewater and Taunton College as a trainee teacher in agriculture.
During my final year in college, I realised that teaching was the pathway I wanted to take, and BTC gave me the opportunity to do that.
When I started, they put me through my teaching degree while I was teaching, hence the role title ‘trainee teacher’.
Once I finished my two years of training, I was promoted to lecturer and course leader within the agriculture team.
Working in BTC, and Somerset, was the most amazing experience and it really opened my eyes to the various agricultural practices that are out there, so I would highly recommend it to anyone.
Sheep technician at Kildalton Agricultural College
Currently, I am a sheep technician at Kildalton Agricultural College. My main responsibilities are running the sheep unit here in the college as well as carrying out the practical teaching to students, which is mainly sheep practicals, but I do carry out some soil, tillage, and dairy practicals also.
During term time, I tend to have classes all day Monday – Thursday. Along with our own level 5 and Level 6 students, we also have WIT students, so we are generally quite busy.
If I am not teaching, I am prepping for classes, checking on the sheep, completing purchase orders, and any general day-to-day running of a sheep enterprise.
I work closely alongside all teaching and admin staff here in Kildalton.
The people involved in the sheep unit with myself are Anna, the sheep lecturer here in Kildalton and the sheep enterprise leader, and Billy, who is the stockman for the drystock enterprise here and literally our right-hand man!
I love the fact that I get to teach every day but am also involved in the farm and the running of the sheep unit.
I suppose the most challenging is keeping a profitable sheep enterprise while also catering for students in the sense that we would have high outputs from buying equipment etc.
The position is meeting my expectations; Kildalton is an amazing place to work, and the people I work with make it all the better.
If you could turn back the clock, career-wise, I potentially would have chosen ag science rather than agriculture in college, simply because you have soil science incorporated into the degree, which is a huge benefit to you no matter what aspect of farming you are in.
Apart from that, I feel that everything has happened the way it should have for me.
Outside of work, I am not currently involved in sport but plan on playing Gaelic football with my local club, Ardfinnan, but it may have to wait until next season now!
We have horses at home, too, so I am hoping in the next year, or so I can get back into that and start competing again; all going well. It is just a case of finding the time at the moment.
Outside of that, we have two working spaniels who we take shooting, beating, and picking up. I have the occasional day on my own gun, but I prefer to go beating and picking up with the dogs.
It is amazing watching them work, and it is a real sense of achievement when you get complimented on them, especially when we trained them ourselves and have put so much work into making them the dogs they are today.
At the moment, my partner is managing a dairy farm in Kilsheelan, and we both have a passion for sheep and dairy, so we are hoping in the future to possibly take on our own tenancy or else start our own flock and/or herd.
I have a particular interest in dairy herd health and management, so I would like to build on that more and look into the possibility of starting a consultancy business of my own that looks at the likes of mobility scoring, body condition scoring, parlour hygiene, SCC, etc., but for now, I am happy and love my job in KC!
The future is always bright – there is a lot coming down the line, especially for women in agriculture, which is great.
This year has been particularly tough with weather, feeding, and prices going up the way they have, but it just means we have to work a little harder in the job we all love. The results will come one way or another.
It has been a journey, but I have got there; nothing comes easy, and I have had to work hard to get to where I am today, but it has all 100% been worth it. Travelling and going to the U.K. was the best decision career-wise that I could have possibly made.
My knowledge and experience have grown so much since being there, so for anyone on the fence about travelling – DO IT!
Women in ag
There has been a lot of talk around women in agriculture over the last 12 – 18 months, which is great.
But, on the flip side of that, we cannot let it get to the stage that if there is a woman on a panel discussion that it is thought she is only there because of wanting to show fairness.
Throughout my career, I have never been looked at differently or treated differently, including on our home farm.
If I am good enough and deserving of the role, I get it, but you need to be willing to hold your hand up and say, ‘can I have help with this?’ or ‘would you mind showing me how to do this?’.
I cannot turn over any of the rams we have here in the college because I am just not physically strong enough to do it, so I ask for help.
I suppose what I am trying to say is to be confident in yourself but also don’t be afraid to say you can’t do something.”
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