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Aoife Forde, out on the family farm near Carron in the heart of The Burren. Photograph by John Kelly

Aoife gets with the programme

Farmer Aoife Forde sings the praises of agriculture schemes tailored to their areas, such as the one in The Burren

AOIFE Forde feels privileged to be born and raised in the Burren in the middle of a such a unique landscape.
The 24-year-old agricultural science graduate and suckler farmer loves working on the family farm, which is is situated about three miles from Carron, just a stone’s throw from Mullaghmore, Sliabh Rua and Knockanes, most of which is owned by the state through the Burren National Park.
Aoife describes the Burren as a magical place and really appreciates growing up surrounded by the rocky limestone outcrop.
“You can get a sense of people that came before you. You see stone walls that are standing there for hundreds of years. You can see the ring forts and all the old cattle pens. I just feel privileged about where I was born and raised.”
She agrees that efforts must continue to protect the Burren landscape.
“If Brendan Dunford hadn’t come to do his PhD back in the nineties, the Burren could be a different place today. People understand why it is important to protect the landscape. Supports have been put in place for sustainable farming.
“For the rest of Ireland, you have to have schemes that are tailored to a particular area. What works in Clare may not necessarily work in Mayo. Farmers don’t want to destroy the landscape.
“The Burren Programme has provided the template, which can be tweaked for a local area,” she explains.
In 2010, her father, PJ became involved in the Burren Programme with other North Clare farmers following the success of the initial pilot comprising 20 land owners.
Aoife recalled they didn’t have to make dramatic changes to farming practices as PJ had always put cows on their winterage and left them there until all the grass was eaten.
As a young child, she remembers going on a tractor with PJ up to the winterage feeding bales of silage, which wouldn’t happen now. Nowadays, they have one designated feeding area where silage is deposited for cows in the knowledge that no payment is made for this area under the programme.
“That’s the beauty of the programme. There is no one saying ‘you can’t do this and you can’t do that’. It is a case of if you need to provide feed in this area, you can. We keep the silage to a minimum.
“There hasn’t been a whole lot of changes, apart from where you can feed silage. The Burren Programme has been brilliant. Over grazing, under grazing and poaching are the areas to watch. If you make sure land isn’t over poached, when you go back again in July you would never know a cow stood on that spot following its recovery.
“The advisors in the programme are brilliant, and once you work with them, you will get great results. They may identify areas for scrub clearance. They are not forcing farmers to do anything. You can say, ‘I will clear this area of scrub this year and do that area next year’, which is fine.
“You can pick up the phone and run anything past the advisors at any stage. That is why the programme works so well, it is farmer-led.
“Farmers in other counties are envious of what has been achieved. The Hen Harrier and Pearl Mussel Programme have stemmed from the Burren Programme.”
PJ has 40 suckler cows and, most years, eight replacement heifers are kept, which leaves about 32 weanlings that are sold in Ennis or Kilfenora Mart.
Aoife believes the provision of a new Burren beef label would be of major benefit for farmers, if it could be sold as a premier product.
“We are getting the exact same price for an animal as a farmer from Sixmilebridge even though our animals are reared in such a unique way. They are born on the rock and also graze the lowlands.
“We are selling this premier project. This suckler cow is doing wonders for the Burren, she is producing a calf yet it just gets killed and it doesn’t really matter where it came from.
“People are becoming more aware of the origin of their food. I believe a lot of money could be made from this new label.”
While the number of women working in agriculture has increased in recent years, she admits there are still pockets of West of Ireland where men, primarily in their sixties and seventies, will be in the majority.
“If you go to Kilfenora Mart on a Monday night in October, there may only be four women out of an overall attendance of 200.
“My grandmother, Kathy Forde milked cows by hand and worked on the farm. My other grandmother, Mary Corry in Kildysart was also a great farming woman.
“There have been a lot of women farmers. Women fed and reared calves in dairy farms, which all went under the radar.
“My mother always did the paperwork here on the farm before I took over.
“We are still doing things that were done 5,000 years ago putting cattle up on the mountain.
“You can have all the technology and machinery, but you can’t drive a tractor, you have to set off by foot.”
She attended Kilnaboy National School where her mother, Fiona is a teacher and went on to Gort Community School.
After completing a degree in agricultural science in Waterford, she secured a paid Masters under the Walsh Scholarship Programme run by Teagasc and UCD.
It was called “Facilitating rural communities to create enterprise opportunities using the participatory process developed by SKIN, Short Food Chain Knowledge and Innovation Network”.
Based in the Teagasc office in Listowel, she worked as a co-ordinator on a project on the Dingle Peninsula for 18 months helping farmers to create enterprise opportunities from their farm.
“It was a bottom-up approach from the farmers. I was there to facilitate farmers’ ideas. There was about 45 in the group, about 70% were farmers, local historians and people interested in land.
“There was a great sense of community in Dingle and they well able to pull together.”
The study looked at facilitating rural communities in West Kerry to create enterprise opportunities which reflected the local history, culture and heritage of the area.
Developing agri-tourism ventures such as walking trails and supporting environmental farming like the Burren Programme were explored as part of this project.
There were four different groups on renewable energy, tourism, food production, heritage, culture, archaeology and conservation.
There was also a link between this project and the Dingle Hub, which aims to make the peninsula carbon neutral by 2030.
The successful engagement of the community at the heart of this research was key in the project’s success. Facilitating the community in an innovative non-judgemental space brought to light the range of innovative ideas which silently existed within a rural community.
This highlights the role that agricultural extension agents could play in future by not just continuing to share technical knowledge but also assuming the role as a facilitator/innovation broker, to facilitate low-income farmers to diversify and to increase overall farm income.
The project finished in June 2020, and now there is another student building on this work looking at rural development.
Aoife decided to take a break during the summer to resume playing camogie with Corofin and ladies’ football with Burren Gaels.
From September to December, she stayed at home farming with her father, PJ before she took on a role with Teagasc completing derogation applications for dairy farmers from January until the end of March.
If an intensive farmer exceeds a certain level of nitrates application, they have to draw up a derogation plan with the help of an advisor.
She is currently acting as a drystock advisor in the Teagasc office in Athenry as part of maternity leave cover.
Most of their herd are Limousin and they have some Aberdeen Angus crosses as well as two Limousin stock purebred bulls on the farm.
Normally, cows are weaned by taking away their calves from September 20 to October 15 and are taken on foot to the winterage about four weeks later.
Nuts ration is provided from January 25 and the suckler cows normally calve from March 1 to the end of April.
“It is amazing. You can go up the mountain on a cold day in December and you will see cows chewing the cud and they are the happiest cows in all of Ireland.
“Rain doesn’t bother the cows once it is not driving cold rain or hailstones. Even in a storm, they will find a sheltered spot. The limestone rock absorbs the heat from the sun in summer and slowly releases it in winter.
“In bad weather, the cows will come together in a hollow, the heat will be rising off of them and they will be very content. Cows are very clever animals, they will not get caught in a storm.”
She believes the beef industry needs to be overhauled as beef farmers are constantly grappling with major fluctuations in meat prices, which makes it much harder to plan for the future.
While Aoife was in Waterford she completed a thesis on comparison of the performance of a suckler cow that is housed and fed grass silage versus one that is outwintered in the Burren.
When body-condition scores of both herds were examined, no statistical difference was found over the period of the trial.
Before direct payments were taken into account, very similar financial results were found on both farms with losses being made on both farms. When direct payments were included, the out-wintered farm grossed €20,000 more than the housed farm. This can be attributed to the fact that the out-wintered farm was two and a half times larger than the housed farm.
The research concluded that suckler cows out-wintered on the Burren perform as well as cows that are housed and fed grass silage in a slatted shed for the winter.

By Dan Danaher

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