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Home Life Weekend

Farmers' wives: Why the women who work and live on the land wouldn't change their way of life for the world

By Stephanie Bell

Published 15/08/2015

Helen Long in one of her fields
Helen Long in one of her fields
Helen Long in her farmhouse
Helen Long walking her dog

They are the backbone of the farming world, the women who stand by their men through thick and thin, good times and bad, in an industry which sees more than its fair share of peaks and troughs.

As agriculture struggles through yet another crisis in Northern Ireland, with a local delegation of farmers and politicians travelling to Westminster just this week to press for help over the current milk emergency, the farmers' wives continue to offer support to their husbands, many of whom are fighting for survival.

It is a life that is not without its challenges in the modern market yet as Weekend found out, for the women who work and live on the land it is a way of life that they wouldn't change for the world.

We talk to three local farmer's wives about what it is like to live on a farm in 2015.

Helen Long lives on an arable farm in Comber with her husband Sam. The couple have several hundred acres where they grow turnips, barley, wheat and potatoes. They have three grown up children. Helen says:

I grew up on a dairy farm in Co Antrim and I loved the farming life. I was one of five girls. I always said if I had been born a boy I would have been a farmer.

I remember I was nine when I first helped my father with lambing. I can recall the wonder of that experience and every time there was lambing after that I helped out.

I never saw working on the farm as a chore. There is a routine of milking every morning and every night and in the summer time we would spend our days in the fields helping bring in bales of hay.

I suppose it's only now, looking back as an adult, that I can appreciate just how idyllic it was, but as a child I knew no different, it was just second nature.

I had a busy social life as a child and was an active member of the Young Farmers Club. I always said I wouldn't marry a farmer even though I knew my heart was in farming.

It was pure chance that I met my husband. I had studied German at school and met a German girl who was on a year's work experience here. She was due to go back home and I arranged with my sister to take her to a dance in the Stormont Hotel as a farewell night out and that's where I met my husband.

I worked in a bank when we first got married but gave it up when I had my children. Being at home I started to get involved in the administrative side of the business.

As well as growing our crops, we also sell packaging. Comber is renowned as a vegetable growing area and we supply farms with bags for their potatoes and nets for their vegetables as a little sideline to our business.

Farming can be tough. No two years are the same. It is totally dependent on the marketplace and the weather. You have to accept that as the nature of the business and that there are tough times and good times.

My husband's favourite programme is the weather forecast and he is constantly checking the weather app on his iPad which tells him what the weather will be like almost hour to hour.

There is so much tied up in the weather. If you spray your fields for disease and the rain comes on and washes it away, that is thousands of pounds washed away.

We've just had one of the wettest Julys ever and normally we would be out getting the wheat and the barley in but the last time we were out was two weeks ago. If you get a dry day you just have to go out and cut. The straw really needs to be baled and we can't get it done. If you don't get it done you lose it.

It would be great if we were guaranteed two months of dry weather then you could plan your work but that's just not reality.

You just never know from year to year whether or not you are going to have a loss. It can be tough and you have got to love farming to do it. You are the caretaker and the guardian of the land; someone has to look after it.

Farming is hard work and not everyone could be a farmer. It tends to be kept in families but you've got to have a love for it.

Farming has changed so much. Forty or 50 years ago in Northern Ireland most farms would have been 50 acres, now, unless you have got 200 acres, you would have great difficulty making a living.

There are tough times at the minute and the problems are global which makes it very difficult for the industry to sort out and I think a lot of farmers have to try and just hang in there.

I'm a great believer in trying to live simply. I couldn't sleep in my bed at night if I thought I owed the bank money we couldn't pay.

The difficulty is that a lot of farmers have their money tied up in land and machinery. It takes a lot of machinery to work a farm and there is a lot of money in the machinery. We tend to repair and make do rather than buy new.

It can be hard when you don't know how the year is going to go and you can't really plan things.

People think living on a farm can be a lonely life. I have lots of friends and every week I make a point of meeting one of them for coffee or lunch.

Keeping in contact with other farmers' wives gives us a sense of community and makes us feel that we're all in it together and not suffering alone. Meeting up with other wives allows us to support each other.

It's all about contentment in life. I don't think I could live any other way. I love the countryside and the peace and quiet of it and if I want hustle and bustle I just have to go into town.

I wake up in the mornings and hear the birds sing and I just smile. There are pheasants running about here and yesterday I saw a fox. There is a saying you can take the girl out of the country but you can't take the country out of the girl and I would say that is me.

Marian McCracken (59) is married to Thomas (68) a dairy farmer. They live in Magilligan and have five grown up children. Marian says:

I grew up on a farm. My dad was a part-time farmer who kept dairy cows but he gave up farming when I was 16. I met my husband when I was 16, playing badminton. My mother always said never marry a farmer and I think I was a typical rebel because I always fancied the idea of marrying one.

I was 20 when we married and working as a laboratory technician which I gave up when I had my children.

You can feel like you are a one parent family when you are raising children on a farm. My husband was always busy working so he wasn't there to do any school runs or doctor or dentist trips and at times I was very much on my own, keeping everything together.

Dairy farming is a seven-day-a-week job and the cows have to be milked morning and night. The hours are long and it's hard work.

Living on a farm can be quite lonely. I live down a lane which is three quarters of a mile long and on a day-to-day basis I don't see anyone unless I go out and make an effort to. Things have changed so much. It used to be you had people calling at the farm most days to do business but now everything is done by email and the only person you see is the postman.

Although it can be lonely, I really love this life. I have absolutely no regrets about it. I live here on the flat plains of Magilligan looking up at the mountains. It is a wonderful lifestyle and a great way to bring up children.

When the children were small they were able to go out and about safely and it was idyllic for them.

It is a way of life and it has its tough times and its good times. Everything is dependent on the farm.

In the 39 years I've been here we would have had one or two good years than half a dozen bad years, it has never been consistent.

Last year was a good year for dairy farmers and the best for a number of years and because of that a lot of farmers would have invested in new machinery and new milking parlours. Now, because of what's happening, they will be struggling to pay for them.

People saw all these wonderful tractors going up to Stormont last week and the reality is that most of them were probably bought on hire purchase.

My husband should be retired and yesterday he was working from 6am until after six last night. With the prices the way they are, it is very hard to even think about retirement.

If I go to the supermarket I like to take advantage of special offers but I think the general public doesn't realise what goes into the products. I think children don't realise that their milk comes from an animal that has to be fed and looked after and I believe there should be more education about farming.

Farming is an amazing profession and farmers have to be good at lots of things and be very adaptable.

They have to be able to do a bit of joinery, fencing, ploughing, cropping, animal husbandry and have all sorts of skills.

I think people see that you have a good car, home and lots of land and they don't realise that the land is of no value unless you can sell it. You can't take a bit of land into the supermarket to buy your groceries.

I think the position the dairy farmers have found themselves in at the minute is very sad. It really is and people don't realise that without farmers, there is no one to feed the nation. We are a small island and if other countries stopped producing food it would be a poor state of affairs if our farmers weren't able to provide what we need."

Angela Henry (28) is a dental nurse who is married to dairy farmer Ian Henry (31) and they live in Armoy with their daughter Grace (14 months). Ian left his profession as an electrician to set up a dairy farm just a year ago. Angela says:

Ian grew up on a farm and always wanted to be a farmer but there just wasn't enough work on his father's farm for him so he trained as an electrician.

About a year ago he realised his dream and took over the farm his dad ran with his uncle and they took a back seat so that Ian and his cousin could take over. They have turned it from a beef farm to a dairy farm.

Ian just felt it was now or never and as it's something he always wanted to do, I was happy to support him.

It's been a big change for me, especially getting used to the hours of a farmer. Ian works very long hours and is away from 6.30am until about 7.30pm to 8pm at night. Dinner now can be any time for us from 7.30 to 9pm.

Some nights he might not be home until 10pm so it has been quite a big change for me.

I think it's a great life for our daughter, Grace. Her first words were "moo" and "cow" and she loves nothing better than to be on her feet on the farm spendings time around the animals.

In this day, when kids spend so much time in front of the TV, I love the fact that she just wants to be outside on the farm.

I work full-time but any time I have I like to be down on the farm with Grace.

I know it can be a tough life. With the current crisis and Ian just starting out, the way we look at it is well, we never knew what it was like when the prices were high, so the only way is up.

We just have to keep building it up. It's a new business and it's operating at a loss because of that so we have to be optimistic.

I know the current situation is a big worry for Ian but he has invested in quality, so we hope that the milk will speak for itself.

I grew up in Ballycastle so I am used to the town but I just love the country and the idea of raising my children there.

I am realistic enough to know that there could be tough times ahead and that some years we won't be going on holiday. We just have to take one year at a time and deal with it as it comes along.

Belfast Telegraph

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