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‘In the valley where I come from, 1,000 cows are needed to break-even’

In 2014, Ryan Dennis’ parents were forced to sell their herd, and that is how writing about farming became his life’s work.

The Western New York State native lived in Iceland for several years, where he wrote about dairy farmers. He also taught creative writing in a German university for two years.

Now residing in Galway City, he is on a mission to tell the story of people like his family, who has a strong farming tradition spanning four generations.

“Growing up, I became disillusioned with how hard people like my family worked to keep a farm and how little they gained financially from their struggles,” Ryan Dennis (36) told That’s Farming.

“Although each farmer’s experience is different and unique, I want to present a more genuine and accurate portrayal of farming in literature, if only so farmers can see their lived experiences reflected back to them.”

Ryan Dennis, dairy farming, Holstein Friesian, family farm

Education

Ryan has many qualifications under his belt. He has studied a BA in Environmental Science and a BA in English from 2004 to 2007 at University of Iowa, USA.

He went on to complete a MA in Writing at NUI Galway from 2008 to 2009 and a MA in Literature, Culture and Media at University of Iceland, Reykjavik from 2014 to 2015.

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Furthermore from 2015 to 2019, he completed a PhD in English, focusing on creative writing and agricultural narratives at NUI Galway.

“My Practice in Research PhD in English from NUI Galway consists of two parts. The first was academic research on the farm narratives of Ireland and Iceland and how the way each country wrote about farming demonstrated the consequences of their agricultural policies. The second component was a novel on Irish farming, as a way of adding to these narratives.”

After finishing their PhDs, in the end of 2019, Ryan and his partner decided to travel South America for a while before starting career work.

“However, the pandemic found us there, and like most people, we’ve been looking to slug through it until more settled employment comes.”

One of Ryan’s highlights in his career thus far was in 2013 when he received a Fulbright grant to spend time with Icelandic dairy farmers and write about them.

“I was able to live among farmers in the northern part of the island and learn how they made their stand. It was an incredible lesson in that “protectivist” agricultural policies can work and really make a difference in the life of farmers.”

author, Ryan Dennis, dairy farming, farming, writer, aut

Novel

Ryan has written a novel that is due to be published on March 11th, 2021 by Epoque Press.

The novel is about an ageing Irish dairy farmer who tries to keep his senility and his farm, all the while trying to protect a mute boy in his care who the villagers view as cursed.

“It is lyrical and gothic, and to my knowledge, the only novel that addresses such concerns in modern agriculture.” he explained.

In addition, Ryan has a set column called The Milk House that appears in print in various agricultural publications in the US and Canada, and that is also translated into French.

“I realised that, particularly in the US, there weren’t any novels or movies coming out about farmers anymore. That didn’t seem just for a group of people who have always maintained an intense selfhood, a strong will, and who often are required to create new miracles each day simply to just keep farming.”

“It became obvious that the story of the family farm was one that needed to be told. Especially as small agriculture increasingly suffered in the US, and no one was telling it. I wanted to fill that void, and in doing so, show the rest of the world what people like my family have gone through.”

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Interest in Irish agriculture

Ryan has taken a specific interest in Irish agriculture because he believes Ireland is one of the few places in which farming is still somewhat integrated into the social fabric of the general public.

“In the United States, family farming is all but entirely disappeared, and it is far from the mind of the average citizen. Still, I fear for the future of Irish agriculture.”

“Just as the United States did not learn from specific policies in Australia in 2001 that saw a majority of its family farms go out of business, I think there are certain lessons from US agriculture that the EU is ignoring, and which may specifically impact Ireland the most. I hope my writing brings attention to that.”

“American farming is a consequence of productivist agricultural policies, or in other terms, farmers have been encouraged to get bigger and bigger. The result is an old story that everyone is familiar with: as farms get bigger more agricultural goods enter the market, driving the price down and causing farms to get bigger again to make the same profit margin. In the valley I come from, farms milking 500 cows are going out of business left and right, and it is accepted that 1,000 cows are needed to break-even.”

“Ireland, on the other hand, still has small agriculture and family farms based on rotational grazing and small herds. However, farms are starting to get bigger here too as the EU has shifted towards more market-based farmgate pricing.”

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Ryan Dennis in Iceland
Future

Ryan is currently writing a memoir based on his life growing up on a family dairy farm that seeks to investigate why family agriculture ended in the United States.

“I hope to continue to write about farming and give voice to the people who do it. Ultimately, I hope my work continues to reinvigorate the dialogue on how to best serve and protect family agriculture.”

“Agriculture can be a terribly short-sited industry. When farmgate prices are high, we think we’re farming in a perfect political and economic system.”

“It’s only when the prices swing low again that people start calling for change, which so many times gets forgotten again when high prices return. In most developed areas of the world, however, the overall charted course of the farmer’s livelihood and experience behind it hasn’t been going in the right direction,” Ryan Dennis concluded.

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