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Catherina Cunnane
Catherina Cunnane
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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‘The beauty of a career in agriculture is that it can take you anywhere’

In this week’s Women in Ag segment, That’s Farming, speaks to Lisa O’Toole (24), a tillage farmer, WIT graduate, and masters student.

Lisa O’Toole toyed with the idea of studying primary before becoming involved in her family tillage farm, which influenced her decision to carve an agricultural career.

The 24-year-old, who resides in Ballon, County Carlow, farms on a part-time basis whilst undertaking a masters degree.

“It is mainly my dad, Larry, and I involved in the operations, but it is a family affair.  My sister, Emma, helps with collecting fertiliser and seed for us. She would draw diesel to us during the harvest.”

“Both my parents, Larry and Christine, came from farms, so farming is definitely in my blood. Growing up, I was always outside playing with my sister. My parents were lucky enough to be able to purchase our home farm in the early 2000s, something I have always been very proud of. My parents have worked very hard to achieve this.”

Tillage farmer

The family operate a mainly plough-based system but strive to incorporate a level of minimum tillage, particularly when sowing winter wheat after spring beans. Their typical rotation comprises spring beans, winter wheat, winter barley, winter oats and spring barley.

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Besides, they also plant cover crops in the autumn after harvest and have witnessed improved soil health and nutrient retention during winters.

“We do most of the work ourselves except for the sowing, which we contract out. I am mainly involved in the tilling and harvesting operations. Honestly, I love harvest time; there is always a great buzz around the place.” Lisa explained.

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Weather conditions 

The young farmer is particularly passionate about promoting biodiversity on her family farm, and over recent years, the family has planted approximately 5kms of hedgerows.

“The biggest challenge we have encountered in recent years is the extreme weather conditions. The painful memory of two severe droughts in the last three years is still ingrained in my mind.”

“This has then been coupled with wetter autumns and winters making it difficult to get winter crops sown in suitable conditions. It is heart-breaking to see a crop lying underwater, knowing there is nothing you can do about it,” she revealed.

“I am glad to say I have not had any negative experience from being a woman in agriculture. I think that it helps that more and more women are becoming involved in agriculture.”

“At industry level, in particular, I think there is a greater drive to achieve gender equality within organisations. I would encourage more women to get involved in agriculture and not to be afraid to ask for help.”

“I would find the physical aspect of farming in terms of heavy lifting a challenge. Admittedly, I cannot lift the 50kg bags of seed, but there is always a way around it. I am not afraid to ask for help,” the tillage farmer added.

Educational pathway

Lisa completed a Bachelor of Science (Honours) degree in agricultural science at Waterford Institute of Technology from 2015 to 2019. She selected the course because of its diversity and practical, hands-on aspect, with a blend of agricultural science, business, the environment and food production modules.

Lisa completed her work placement on a 780-cow dairy farm in New Zealand on the South Island, just south of Ashburton, as part of her undergraduate studies.

She was employed as a dairy assistant responsible for milking, feeding out, grassland management and operating irrigation systems.

“I had heard great stories from some of my predecessors about their experiences in New Zealand, and I wanted to go and experience it for myself. It was a great opportunity to farm in a professional, well-structured environment. I enjoyed my time there; it is a lovely country to travel.”

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Masters degree

After finishing her undergraduate degree in 2019, Lisa knew she wanted to further herself academically. She applied for a position on the Teagasc Walsh Scholarship programme to complete a Masters in Agricultural Innovation Support in conjunction with UCD.

“This masters is unique in that while completing a research project, you are also gaining practical experience in both agricultural advisory and education.”

“I am in the Teagasc advisory office in Portlaoise. My thesis looks at fodder crop agreements between tillage and livestock farmers and how these can be promoted.”

“Covid-19 has made the process of collecting data more difficult. Thankfully the participants involved in my study have been very accommodating and helpful.”

Advisory or education

The Carlow native hopes to pursue a career in either agricultural advisory or education as “she loves meeting new people and the diversity of work involved in both”.

“I definitely would not rule out more travel. The beauty of a career in agriculture is that it can take you anywhere. There are so many aspects you can get involved with and specialise in.”

“It is a great lifestyle, and you definitely will not get bored because the industry is constantly evolving with new practices and technologies emerging all the time.”

“I want to remain working part-time on the home farm while also working in the sector. I suppose that is the beauty of tillage farming; it is flexible enough to allow you to work off-farm. I would say that the future of Irish agriculture is bright.”

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Future outlook for industry 

The young farmer acknowledged that many challenges are facing the industry, particularly in terms of environmental pressures. However, with every challenge, she pointed out, comes new opportunities.

“I think that the tillage industry has been underappreciated in recent years, given the low levels of greenhouse gases emitted from crop production.”

“Besides, I think various opportunities are coming down the line in terms of new, more robust varieties of protein crops. Also, I think it is important that Irish tillage farmers are rewarded for the provision of traceable, locally produced grain when compared with grain imports that are produced to different standards,” Lisa concluded.

Are you a tillage farmer? To share your story, email – [email protected]

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