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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.
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‘I went from a working week behind a desk to having a mountain as an office’

That’s Farming editor, Catherina Cunnane, in conversation with Claire Jeannerat (42) in this week’s women in ag series. In the next segment, we discuss an ancestral and traditional type of farming in Switzerland, the alpage and her life as a wife, mother and shepherdess.

Read part one of this interview on farming in Switzerland.

“We choose to respect a very ancestral and traditional type of farming which makes me feel we are not only keeping a legacy alive, but we have a very close, hands-on relationship with our animals.

For example, we move our animals 90% of the time by foot. I also feel that, in many ways, we are a link between a world that is no longer existent and the modern world.

But I think what I love the most is this. I have more than one role; I am also a mother and a shepherdess. As a family, what we do, shepherding is incredibly hard for us all.

The kids, from a young age, have been entirely immersed in this way of life; they are very at ease around animals and treat them with respect.

They have had to learn to keep up, be independent, make sacrifices, and deal with life and death. But it is a unique education that leads them to places and allows them to experience things that very few other children of their age will ever have done.

Switzerland

For most of the months from mid-June to November, we are living apart as a family, my husband on the alpage and the children and I at home because of the constraints of school and other obligations.

When we can, the kids and I go and stay with Damien on the alpage. It is challenging being separated as a family as, during winter, we are always together.

It is also tough being separated from your ‘teammate’ as we work together on the farm and enjoy working together, so readapting to going solo takes some adjustment.

I would also say that juggling the roles of shepherdess, mother, wife, homemaker, and administrator has its fair share of challenges.

Some days you feel on top of your game and very accomplished; other days, it is just total chaos.

Finally, the constant need for all plans to be flexible; everything can and often does change in a heartbeat, and you have to learn to let go and, as much as possible, go with the flow.

Family effort

We run the farm between my husband and I. My husband takes on most of the feeding in the winter months when the animals are housed in shelter and a good part of the fencing for the pastures in spring as we still have three small children to care for as well.

But when we are split up from June to November, he is responsible for the husbandry of the main flock of sheep (480 animals), and I am responsible for the goats, horses, and cows.

Highlights

In terms of farming highlights, I have so many! One would be witnessing so much wild beauty on the alpages, the love and trust you get back from your animals, all new life (lambs, kids, calves. and puppies).

Another would be seeing our children growing up in this unique environment rich with life experience, moving animals by foot (the feeling is second to none) and finally the human connections that this lifestyle has allowed me to make.

My goal is to make our farm a successful business that we can pass on to our children if they wish to continue in our footsteps.

Also, we wish to continue on the traditions and heritage of Swiss mountain farming as well as sharing our journey with as many people as possible.

By next year, we will increase the flock to include 50 or so milking sheep, first to start producing milk to be transformed into cheese by a local company. The ultimate goal is to produce our own cheese ourselves.

We also hope to get more involved in agro-tourism to educate the public on our way of life as a mountain farming family, in the hope to sensibilize them to supporting farmers by buying local, also to increase interest in wool as a product of economic and ecological value, with the ultimate hope of reviving the local wool economy.

In the next five years, we hopefully will have successfully put down the foundations for the projects above mentioned.

It has been a life-changing adventure that has become who I am to my very core. I went from a working week behind a desk to having a mountain as an office. I have learnt things about myself I never knew.

Reflection and advice

It has taken me way out of my comfort zone and challenged me mentally, physically, and emotionally. I have failed many times but also had many successes and firsts. Farming has made me know who and believe in myself.

My advice to aspiring farmers is this: getting some good work experience (even as a volunteer) under your belt is a good idea.

It will help you not only establish if this is the vocation for you but also give you some vital insight into what farming path you want to take. Farming is lifelong learning, so dialoguing with people who have experience is never time wasted.

I truly hope that we manage to find some common ground between those that see farmers as the cause of the destruction of the planet and those who see farmers as the saviours.

I think, as a whole, governments need to be more proactive in helping farmers to farm in a more sustainable and ecological manner.

This can only be achieved through financial incentives (as per the Swiss model through taxation used to support farming).

This allows farmers to financially operate on a smaller scale which benefits animals and nature alike, encouraging the general public to buy local produce, and not allowing countries to be flooded with cheaper meat from abroad.”

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

See more women in ag interviews.

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