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Catherina Cunnane
Catherina Cunnanehttps://www.thatsfarming.com/
Catherina Cunnane hails from a sixth-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 firm during its start-up phase in 2015.
Reading Time: 8 minutes

‘I love being a first-generation farmer as I can say I built the sheep up on my own’

That’s Farming editor, Catherina Cunnane, catches up with Sophie Corderoy in this week’s women in ag segment. She discusses the ins and outs of being a first-generation farmer. 

“My name is Sophie Corderoy, and some of you may recall the name from my previous article that That’s Farming published on me back in December 2021.

For those who do not know, I am a first-generation sheep farmer with my own flock of Kerry Hill sheep.

Being a first-generation farmer is extremely rewarding, but it also brings its fair share of challenges.

I have been farming my own sheep for two years now, and there have been a few points during this time where I have thought I cannot do this anymore.

First-generation farmer 

Limited grazing and opportunities to obtain more land are the biggest issues.

Grazing and getting more land will always be difficult, but around the area that I am situated in, it seems to be that extra bit harder to get any more grass.

There is enough grazing to keep a small number of sheep, but nowhere near enough to grow my flock to the size I would like it to be.

It can be extremely discouraging at times because you do not think you will be able to get anywhere.

Without the opportunity to get more grazing, there is no way you can grow your business the way you want to.

Early this year, however, I got given the opportunity to take on 32-acres of grazing. It might not sound like a lot to some, but for me, it was a huge opportunity which, of course, I took.

This has been a huge learning curve for me as I have been used to having many small bits of grazing that do not take much management apart from grazing.

Hay-making

It has meant that I have had to do my first bit of hay-making. People that have been farming for generations would find something like this easy as they know what they are doing.

But, for me, I have never had to think about when grass is ready to cut or when it is ready to bale. This brings me to something that I think is challenging for first-generation farmers.

We are all learning as we go; it is impossible to know everything about agriculture until you have done it. I feel like these older generation farmers forget that.

This year, especially with hay-making, I have had a lot of comments such as “you should not have that much ground if you cannot manage it”.

I think other farmers need to remember that at one point, they were also learning, and they probably got it wrong at some point in their careers.

Making mistakes

The only way to learn is to make mistakes. It is easy to point out errors, and I can understand this as they have been there and done it, but I personally still find it somewhat unhelpful.

Advice is always useful, and it will never be unwanted, but we all have to start somewhere, and we all have to learn our own way.

I love being a first-generation farmer as I can say I built the sheep up on my own, and I have built my farm from scratch.

It makes you appreciate what you have a lot more compared to if you were given everything.

You also get to see all your hard work unfold in front of you and can look back where you started and say, ‘I have done it; all my hard work has paid off”.

It definitely makes it all worthwhile when you look back at where you started off.

Tips for other first-generation farmers:

My biggest tip for young farmers that want to start up is probably, although it sounds cliché, do not give up.

Three simple words, but it is true, it can get very hard, but you will get there eventually.

Do not be afraid to ask for help or get advice from other people. You will not be able to do it all on your own; you will need help at some point.

A big thing to remember is that you may have to adapt or change something you do to get further.

For example, you may get short on grazing and have to sell some stock. At the time, it feels like the end of the world and that you are taking ten steps backwards.

However, it will work out in the end, and there will come a time when you will be able to buy back more stock and build your business.

The key thing is to not get disheartened when you have to make difficult decisions.

Everything will work itself out; in the end, you just have to trust the process, even though it can be hard.

Things I have learnt

The biggest thing I have learnt over these last two years is never to miss an opportunity.

If you are given a chance to rent more ground or buy some more stock, do it!

Opportunities are very few and far between, so you just have to get everything you possibly can if you are able to.

It is also a really good idea to keep an eye out for small grants for young or first-generation farmers.

They are out there, and they are a big help to get your business off the ground or to buy some more equipment to expand your business.

I applied for one and got it, and I can definitely say without it, I would not be where I am now.

There are people and organisations out there that want to help and encourage you into the industry. Do not be afraid to look and apply.

Over my time in the industry, I have realised that there is always something new to learn. Go on as many courses as you possibly can.

For example, vets often run small workshops, which I have found extremely helpful. There are also a lot of seminars now online through organisations such as the vets and AHDB.

They are packed full of information and are good to watch to gain extra knowledge and keep informed of any news in this ever-changing industry.

Why you should not let a non-farming background stop you

If you would like to get into agriculture and you are not from a farming background, do not get into the mindset of “I will never get into it”.

If you go into anything with a negative attitude, the likelihood is you will not do it. There are ways to get into farming and the ag industry without being born into it.

You have to be prepared to be let down a few times and realise that it will not be easy.

Also, you need to be ready to get your hands dirty and get stuck in.

For those with absolutely no idea about agriculture, the best thing to do would be to go on a short agricultural course through a college or even online now, as there are so many resources out there that you can access.

The great thing about completing a small course is that it gives you an overview of the industry and some background knowledge on things before you get out onto the farm.

The chances of a farmer teaching you then becomes more likely as they know you are willing to learn.

It would also be a good idea to ask farmers for experience during quieter times of the year as they will have more time to teach you.

Education

I am a big believer in educating people and getting them involved in busy times of the year, but sometimes it is just not possible.

During times like lambing, calving and harvest, farmers just simply do not have the time to teach someone that has no experience on top of all the hours they are working.

You also will not get much out of it because no one will have time to explain anything.

I know there is not a huge amount to do during seasons like winter. However, there is enough for someone that wants to step onto the farming ladder and start to gain experience.

Also, if you cannot hack a winter out in the cold and wet, I do not think farming is for you.

The biggest thing to take away from this is that farming never has and never will be easy.

However, when you go home and look at what you have achieved, it is definitely worth it.”
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