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Catherina Cunnanehttps://www.thatsfarming.com/
Catherina Cunnane hails from a fifth-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 company in 2015.
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Nuffield Scholar: How the health status of Irish farmers impacts the sustainability of farming

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As part of a new series, That’s Farming interviews 2019 Nuffield Scholars. In this article, editor, Catherina Cunnane, speaks to Alison Holmes.

How long have you been involved in agriculture?

I grew up on a mixed farming enterprise in Co. Laois and was always encouraged to take advantage of educational opportunities and pursue a career off-farm.

Upon completing a BSc. and MSc. in Physiotherapy, I worked in the HSE for six years. During this time, I completed my Certificate in Agriculture and adopted a more significant role on-farm alongside running my own physiotherapy practice.

Since 2016, I have been working as a clinical tutor in physiotherapy at UL, alongside farming in partnership at home with my father Brian.

What influenced your decision to apply for a Nuffield Scholarship?

Through my involvement in Macra na Feirme and IFA, I’d met many Nuffield Scholars over the years, all of whom spoke very highly of their Nuffield experience. They suggested I consider applying. However, it was Joe Lyng who really encouraged me to apply.

He knew I had a keen interest in farmer health and education and suggested Nuffield would be an ideal platform to pursue this further.

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Hearing of his hugely positive scholarship experience, of all he had learnt and the people he had met, was all the persuasion I needed.

What was your topic?

My topic was investigating the health status of Irish farmers and how this impacts on the sustainability of farming.

Why did you select this topic?

We often hear the term sustainability in regard to farming practice, but not in relation to farming as a profession.

Having a background in farming and healthcare allowed me to become an advocate for farmer and rural health.

Farmer health promotion and management, and the utilisation of existing educational opportunities to optimise same, has become something I am very passionate about. I feel it is essential to ensure the sustainability of farming as a career.

What did your experience as a Nuffield Scholar involve?

I applied to Nuffield Ireland in July 2018 and was successful in the final round of interviews that September.

The 2019 scholars were formally introduced at the Nuffield Ireland Conference in October. From there, we officially began the scholarship journey.

We initially had a series of briefings with industry and DAFM reps and preparatory workshops organised by Nuffield Ireland.

We then travelled to Iowa for the Contemporary Scholar’s conference in March 2019. I participated in the Global Focus Program which involved travelling to Singapore, Japan, Indonesia, France, Canada and the USA. This was undertaken over a six-week period with a group of 10 Nuffield Scholars from New Zealand, Australia, Chile, The Netherlands, the USA and my fellow Irish scholar, Karina Pierce.

On this trip, we visited farms, embassies, processors, industries, government offices and many ag-related initiatives and projects. We were also generously hosted by Nuffield Scholars from previous years and farmers along the way.

We presented on our GFPs at the 2019 conference. As part of my individual travels in 2019 and 2020, I met with researchers, business owners, educators and facilitators and advocates for farmer health from Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom and Brussels.

I also attended the UN Buildings in Rome as a member of a Nuffield delegation attending the CFS (Committee on World Food Security).

I had hoped to do some further travel to Sweden, Finland, and Denmark but this fell victim to Covid 19 restrictions and was substituted by virtual visits. My completed report is due to be published this November.

The scholarship is generously sponsored by industry partners including Glanbia, The Golden Jubilee Trust, FBD Trust, BIM, IFA, the IFJ, Aurivo, Dairymaster, MSD and LIC.

What were your key findings?
  • Farmers in Ireland experience a disproportionate burden of health problems compared to other occupational groups, and are up to seven times more likely to develop non-communicable diseases;
  • Therefore, this results in great financial and social cost, affecting themselves, their families, to their livelihoods and their wider community and industry;
  • These factors negatively impact farming profitability and sustainability, recruitment, and retention.
  • Farmers must perceive interventions as worthwhile, positive, and relatable to promote successful engagement;
  • A viable farm cannot exist without a viable farmer.
What does your report recommend?
  • The health of farmers in Ireland must be prioritised as they play a vital role in the economy;
  • A percentage of Pillar II funding should be assigned to address the growing educational and health and wellbeing needs of Irish farmers;
  • Specific farmer health and wellness education and promotion research and initiatives should be instigated;
  • Incorporate significant health literacy and self-management modules into all existing educational structures and curriculum within agriculture to enable culture and practice change;
  • A framework for formalised Continuing Professional Development should be considered;
  • Adoption of best practice in health and wellbeing, education and farmer sustainability should be recognised by government departments and industry and farmers demonstrating best practice should be championed.
  • The need for a National Farmer Health Centre, co-funded by the HSE, DAFM and industry should be investigated;
  • A national steering group or alliance and research collaboration between academic institutions and farming organisations, should be established to adopt a blended research and practical application-focused approach to improving farmer health nationally.
Would you recommend a Nuffield Scholarship?

Absolutely!

What was the most enjoyable aspect of your Nuffield journey?

I was very lucky to visit such a vast array of countries and continents. However, what consistently made each trip abroad, or event attended here at home, such an amazing experience was the people I encountered along the way and the conversations we had.

It has had a huge impact on my overall outlook, perceptions and thought process.

What was difficult?

The logistics of being away from work and the farm for such extended periods of time.

I was lucky enough to have a team of great colleagues both in private practice and at UL who facilitated this. And not to forget dad, though he made sure to take a few milkings off when I got back!

Where to from here?

Nuffield has given me the opportunity to research this topic further. It has provided the optimal platform for the dissemination of what I hope is useful information and recommendations that will positively impact on Irish farming.

It also provided opportunities to work alongside leading researchers in Ireland and get involved in establishing a research and farmer health alliance.

Sum up your experience as a Nuffield Scholar

Nuffield is about getting involved, pushing yourself, or allowing others to push you, outside of your comfort zone and, in turn, developing leadership skills to be able to contribute positively to the ag industry and local communities.

All while getting to experience agriculture and interact with the Nuffield Scholar network internationally.

Lunch and learn series 

Nuffield Ireland will host a week-long virtual ‘lunch and learn’ series, hosted by the returning 2019 Nuffield Scholars.

The lunchtime series will be free to attend and will feature a 10-minute presentation at 1.30 pm. Each day, scholars will outline the key findings of their report.

Alison will present the findings of her studies at 1:30 pm on Tuesday (November 24th) – See here.

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