For over four years now, I have been privileged to work as Chief Executive for Rural Support in Northern Ireland. Established as a charity in 2002, Rural Support is a regional charity providing support to farmers, farm families and rural dwellers across the province. I am honored to be working for such a great organisation and with an excellent team of staff, mentors and volunteers. I currently sit on a number of steering committees including an initiative called 'Farm Family Health Checks' and a group of statutory and community/voluntary sector organisations called 'Suicide Strategy Implementation Body' of which I am vice-chair.
I grew up on the family farm in Mid-Ulster and later chose to study Geography at the University of Ulster Coleraine followed by a Masters in Communication at Loughry College Cookstown. I lived and worked in New Zealand for a few years before returning home to study. In 2008, I completed my PhD with Queen’s University Belfast examining ‘Rural Restructuring and Information Systems’. After completing this research, I worked in international aid and development and then returned to Northern Ireland to work on a social justice programme with the Community Foundation for Northern Ireland.
Having built a house on the family farm two years ago, much of my spare time now involves helping my father on the farm and spending time with my family. I am delighted to have been sponsored by the Thomas Henry Foundation and I’m incredibly grateful for this opportunity. I look forward to the adventures ahead.
Sustainable grazing strategies that meet ecological demands
I liken the modern livestock farm to a camel being ridden across a desert. It’s tough in that desert but, when the camel drops, the farmer knows there is a fix he can just about afford, to get the camel up and moving again. At the end of the season the camel and the farmer are in pretty bad shape, the residents of the desert are not happy with the farmer’s treatment of the camel or the impact it’s had on the desert. The farmer is paid just enough to keep him interested in doing it all over again.
Farmers are governed by the volatility of commodity prices, costs are escalating, productivity is stalling, and we are spending more on vaccines and treatments as diseases become more prevalent. All the while we are chasing numbers harder to, at best, break even, with most livestock businesses only making profit if support payments are factored in. We are farming by “satnav”, getting to a destination by following instructions without having understood the route, or questioned if it is the best route.
This became the aim of my study. We need to recalculate, find a better route, the challenge being:-
“How do we strike a healthy balance between economy and ecology?”
I travelled and met pioneers of regenerative farming practices who had become observers and students of the ecosystem processes. They mimicked nature to produce an optimum, without outperforming or compromising the ecosystem services that underpin our wellbeing and the production of most of our living needs.
These farmers are profit-orientated, allocating resources on regenerative principles and recognising the importance of the complex relationship between the sun, the soil, the plant and the animal. Over time they have become masters in harvesting sunlight to enhance animal health, performance and profitability.
This route takes more thought and planning and a different approach to how things are done. The balance between ecology and economy has to be reached. Farmers cannot keep giving our money away and watch our natural resources degrade. Knowledge gained through on-farm ecological monitoring and better awareness of ecosystem function will improve productivity and can also be the vehicle for positive communication between producer and consumer.
Change is not chosen voluntarily; it usually happens through disruption or is forced upon us. Disruption is coming our way in the form of Brexit. Trade relations and support payment mechanisms are likely to change. We need to build resilience into our current systems to ensure future viability of our livestock sector. Resilience is built by advancing the natural resources of soil health and diversity, and allocating all other resources in a regenerative way.
The UK, with its forgiving climate for growing green plants, stable politics, and a huge population to feed, has great potential to become world leader in regenerative agriculture.