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Meet the Rare Breed farming families who have landed hit UTV show

Published 18/01/2016

Food for thought: Ricky Cowan, wife Julie, son Matthew and daughter Ruby
Food for thought: Ricky Cowan, wife Julie, son Matthew and daughter Ruby
Frank Donnelly
Ricky Cowan with his son Matthew
Will Taylor with his son Gareth

The everyday real lives of rural folk here have proved a TV hit for UTV. Now, three farmers and a wife talk to Kerry McKittrick about making a living from the land.

The popular UTV show Rare Breed - A Farming Year is on our TV screens again, showing what life is like for families in our rural communities who produce so much of the food we eat every day.

As this year will be a celebration of Food and Drink, the cameras have visited farms all over the province to delve behind the scenes and discover how they produce everything from ice-cream to mushrooms.

And there's a real appetite for the show, with 231,000 viewers tuning in to the first episode which aired last week.

This figure is made even more remarkable when compared to the 184,000-strong audience watching national favourite EastEnders. It seems real life on the farm here beat Albert Square by more than 45,000 viewers last week.

In this series, 18 farming families give us a fly-on-the-wall insight into the highs and lows of farming life.

We talk to three farmers and a farmer's wife who appear on Rare Breed - A Farming Year, to find out about their lives and becoming TV stars.

The everyday real lives of rural folk here have proved a TV hit for UTV. Now, three farmers and a wife talk to Kerry McKittrick about making a living from the land.

‘You can see me teaching Matthew how to shear... it’s hard work until you get the knack’

Ricky Cowan (38) runs Cowan's farm near Carrickfergus. He has a son, Matthew (14) from a previous relationship and is married to Julie (35), who also works on the farm. They have two daughters, Ruby (18 months) and Maisie (8 weeks). He says:

This was my grandfather's farm, then my father's and now mine. And it looks as if Matthew will take over after me. I would never force him to do something he didn't want to, but he does seem to have a great interest in what we're doing here. Farming is hard work and involves long hours, so it's something you have to be committed to and get enjoyment out of. You don't just do it for the money.

I went to Greenmount College to study agriculture and that's what Matthew will do if he wants to. He's a keen rugby player too though, so I'll be encouraging him to go to university so he can pursue that. Going to college or university will be a great experience for him to have and be away from the farm for a while.

We have 40 cows and about 780 ewes on the farm, which has a total acreage of 420, so we're very busy. We plan to raise poultry soon, too, so we're building some chicken sheds. Julie is planning to get involved in that when it's up and running. Although she's from the country, she wasn't raised on a farm. She worked for a young people's charity in Belfast before Ruby was born, but was made redundant and her plan has been to work on the farm once Maisie is a little older. My dad still helps out now and again and I have a guy that comes in part-time - otherwise it's just Julie and I.

In the programme you can see me teaching Matthew how to shear - it's a technique in its own. Once you get the pattern of shearing, then you're okay, but until then it's very hard work.

It was interesting taking part in the programme and it was very good for Matthew, as it's made him more confident. It was quite nerve-wracking at the beginning. We haven't been featured in the series yet, but we've seen ourselves in clips."

Wife Julie also works on Cowan's Farm. She says:

I've always lived in the country and really enjoyed the outdoors, but I never imagined I would end up on a farm until I met Ricky on a night out in Belfast six years ago and we just clicked.

I had worked as a play development officer at a charity before I was made redundant. Although it was a bit of a shock, just before it happened I had realised how much I actually enjoyed working on the farm. I also found the benefit of working from home with a young family.

Farms aren't just about physical work these days, so I've been able to use a lot of my administrative and managerial skills here. I do a lot of the business work, such as registering cattle, grant applications and ordering tags for sheep. Last winter I went to Greenmount College and completed a course in agricultural business operations, which focused specifically on working with sheep. I've been able to take a lot of admin away from Ricky, which really helps around lambing time, which takes up four months of the year.

But I do help out around the farm, too - you want ewes to give birth as naturally as possible but I can give a hand if it's needed. I can't shear a sheep but I lend a hand in rolling the wool."

'It seemed obvious to turn our high-quality milk into a high-quality product like our ice-cream'

Will Taylor (70) runs Glastry Farm Ice-cream outside Newtownards, Co Down. He is married to Cynthia (in her 60s), who works with her husband in the business and they have three grown-up children - Gareth (38), Grace and Leigh, both in their 30s. He says:

My son Gareth has just taken over the farm. He is the sixth generation to run Glastry Farm - I was the fifth.

We're almost exclusively a dairy farm now. It's a tough life as you need to be up with the larks for milking.

I think anyone in my position heading up a family business would be thrilled if someone in the family was willing to carry it on. Gareth started working at the farm about 18 years ago when he was 20.

The only problem was that the farm then had to generate two incomes. This happens to all sorts of family businesses and you need to make sure that the income provided is significant enough to allow the next generation to be enthusiastic about moving forward.

You have to accept your children's choices - you can guide them but when they're old enough and wise enough to make their own decisions then you need to abide by those.

Gareth has been through college and he made it clear from a fairly early age that he wanted to work on the farm.

My wife and I took the view that we would move on whenever Gareth found his feet and that's what we did.

We have seen many small farming businesses where the older generation have hung around until rigor mortis sets in.

I did a Nuffield farming scholarship in 2004 and was tasked with travelling around Europe looking at agri-food opportunities that could be used here.

One of the startling things I discovered was that, unlike Northern Ireland, many farms in Europe turn their raw material into some kind of value-added product instead of selling it on to someone else to do that for them.

It seemed pretty obvious for us as a dairy farm to turn our high-quality milk into a high-quality product so we launched Glastry Farm Ice-cream in 2007. The ice-cream business has been successful and our customer base stretches from Cork to Dunfanaghy.

We're also very proud of the fact that our clients include Hastings Hotels and the Lough Erne Resort among others.

Gareth and I don't actually work together much. In fact, we rarely see each other during the working day.

He is in charge of everything to do with the 270-strong dairy herd.

Although he's a partner in the ice-cream business too, his job is to get the milk from the farm dairy to the ice-cream dairy and after that it's up to us (Will and Cynthia) and our staff to make it into ice-cream.

There's an element of history and sentiment about passing the farm onto Gareth, but really the nitty-gritty of the business world means looking forward rather than backwards.

Turning over the farm to Gareth wasn't a difficult thing for me to do, but I'm very proud of the fact he can pick up the phone to me and ask for help and advice whenever he needs.

We actually had some reservations about taking part in the Rare Breed programme but those disappeared as soon as the TV crew arrived at the beginning of last year.

They were very professional and efficient, and faithful to what was happening on any particular day."

'The mushrooms did so well that we sold the dairy herd'

Frank Donnelly (45) runs Keenaghan Farm in Collegeland, Armagh. He is married to Marie (45) and they have three sons: Shane (14), Ryan (12) and Connor (10). He says:

Our farm was originally dairy, but it's only 40 hectares so we had a very small herd. It was my uncle, Sean, who grew mushrooms originally on his holding next door and I was always very interested in it.

I left school at 16 and my dad, Peter, let me use a shed to try growing mushrooms. That was a great success, so we sold the dairy herd and turned the whole farm over to mushrooms.

When we were filming Rare Breed we were producing 20,000lb of mushrooms a week, but we've raised that figure since, as we've installed new technology. I've always enjoyed the growing - you can have a mushroom that's the size of a pea one day and when you come back the next it's the size of a 50 pence piece.

My dad, who is in his 80s now, still comes out to keep an eye on us, whereas my uncle stopped farming a few years ago - but he's 91 now so we let him.

There are 22 people employed on the farm now - Marie and I had to learn quickly because we didn't know anything about payroll or human resources or managing people. Now she mostly deals with that sort of thing.

The boys all work on the farm, but I don't know if any of them are interested enough to consider taking over the business yet.

To be honest it would be great if we could get them to like eating mushrooms, never mind growing them.

They all have mobiles now though, so if they want money for credit, then they need to get out there and earn it."

  • Narrated by Mark McFaddden, Rare Breed - A Farming Year is on UTV tonight at 8pm

Belfast Telegraph

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