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Derek had the weight of the world on his shoulders but wouldn't ask for help. He told me if prices kept falling it would put our lights out

In the wake of her husband's sudden death at 34, a grieving mum tells of the hardships in farming and the tragic toll it's taken on her family

By Chris McCullough

Published 23/01/2016

Michelle Walker at the family farm near Omagh
Michelle Walker at the family farm near Omagh
Late dairy farmer Derek Walker and his wife Michelle
Derek Walker with his children Jack and Gracie
The couple enjoy a night out
The couple indulging their passion for pipe bands
Derek at the protest in Stormont

The wife of a well-known dairy farmer who died at just 34 years of age has told of the devastating effect that the pressures working in agriculture had on her husband.

Derek Walker from Omagh passed away on January 4 at his home on the Backfarm Road from a heart problem.

His grieving wife Michelle (33) is left to look after the couple's two kids - Jack (4) and his two-year-old sister Gracie.

Jack, in Derek's own words, was his best friend.

When the two were together they were inseparable and Derek found some solace in his son.

That bond helped drag Derek away from all the problems he was facing as a dairy farmer, albeit momentarily, but those problems led to stress and depression which did not help his heart condition.

Derek's death was sudden. No one expected it, even though Derek had quite a lengthy list of medical issues.

His wife Michelle is originally from Cullybackey and met Derek through an immense shared interest in pipe bands.

Michelle said: "After chasing me for a year we finally started dating and eventually got married on September 26, 2008 at 1pm.

"I moved down to Gillygooley where Derek's farm was. We really started with nothing but in time we were able to build a bungalow and start a family.

"Derek started the dairy side of things on the farm of his father Basil and mum Audrey. He continued to grow the dairy herd on the farm to the 300 cows in the herd today.

"He simply loved working with cows and was very passionate about the dairy industry.

"Jack came along on February 22, 2011, and Gracie was born on December 3, 2013. Derek adored the kids. He and Jack were best friends and always spent time together.

"Gracie was his wee angel who could do no wrong in his eyes. She got away with everything."

As milk prices crashed over the past year, dairy farmers were struggling financially. Cash flow became almost non-existent and bills were stacking up.

Like his fellow farmers, Derek was caught up in the crisis but he had another issue affecting him.

His herd was closed down with tuberculosis and he was unable to sell any animals. It had been closed up for the past five years.

"Derek had a long-term problem with his back," said Michelle. "It was giving the nerves in his body a lot of problems and he complained about them often.

"He wore a morphine patch all the time to give him some relief. For the past five years he had a loop recorder surgically placed in his heart which gave readings from his heart as there was a history of heart problems in the family.

"One night about two years ago I came home and found Derek in the ensuite bathroom. He was blue and unresponsive and was in cardiac arrest.

"I was a PE teacher but retrained to work with people with dementia and was also trained in first aid. I administered CPR to Derek and managed to bring him round. It took the ambulance 40 minutes to come that night. I thought I had lost him then."

During the past 12 months, Derek helped set up the farm lobby group, Fair Price Farming NI, which strives to help fellow farmers campaign for better prices.

Derek was very passionate about the dairy industry and in building a farm he could hand over to son Jack some day.

He took to the supermarkets with other farmers protesting about the low milk prices in a bid to raise awareness of the problems. He also travelled to Stormont participating in a huge farm protest led by Fair Price Farming NI. There he let the authorities know exactly what he thought of them.

Tension was building up inside Derek but he rarely let that stress come out.

"He would keep it all to himself," said Michelle. "It all built up inside him and really started to affect him. He was on medication for depression as well.

"Christmas 2015 came and went and we all had a great time as a family. Derek's cows were milked three times per day so he was always up early to start."

But on Monday, January 4, Derek did not wake up to switch off the alarm and Michelle knew there was a problem.

"I came home from visiting my family in Cullybackey with the two kids on Sunday night and found Derek in a deep sleep on the sofa.

"I got him up and told him to go to bed. He was very restless and kept on saying his arms felt like they were going to burst.

"These pains in his arms and legs were common due to the back problems but this night they were more painful, he said, than ever.

"He was exhausted but he managed to go to sleep around 1am on the Monday morning. I joined him and fell asleep too but Jack came in and fell asleep in our bed. I went to the other room to give them space.

"Derek's alarm always came on around 4am as it did on that Monday morning. However, Derek did not switch it off as normal. I got up to see what was going on as I did not want Jack waking up.

"I found Derek lying on his belly on the floor in a pool of fluid. I turned him over and he was breathing but had a very weak pulse. There was fluid coming out his mouth and nose. It was terrible. He was gasping for a breath.

"I phoned the ambulance and his dad Basil.

"I gave him CPR but it took the ambulance 25 minutes to come as they got lost.

"The ambulance crew gave him adrenaline and worked with him further but he was gone. My Derek was gone."

Derek had turned 34 last August and has been fondly described by many of his friends as a 'grafter' and a 'gentle giant.'

Michelle described him as a 'big softie.' She said: "He was so passionate about the cows and he always told Jack that one day they would be milking 500 cows.

"I couldn't have asked for a better husband. I came to this area with nothing except him and we started a family.

"He wasn't such a romantic but he did try. I remember when we got engaged he simply said, 'Here, throw that ring on your finger'. That was his way.

"He was always working so I was kind of used to him not being here in the daytimes. But now when the kids go to bed and I am on my own I miss him dearly.

"Every night before they go to bed Jack and Gracie stand at the front door and look for a star. They pick one and tell me that star is dad up milking the cows.

"Jack always says, 'God gave daddy a job milking his 500 cows in heaven,' and that is his comfort.

"People came from far and near to pay respects to Derek at the funeral. It was a tough time for all of us. Derek would be fairly grinning up in heaven about it all.

"He had principles and stood by them. If he had something on his mind you would not change him. I am not from a farming background but he did sometimes speak to me about the crisis. He often told me if prices continued to crash it would 'put our lights out for good'. He carried the weight of the world on his shoulders but would never ask for help. Sometimes, though, he would say the pressure in his head was going to put his head away."

The family may have buried Derek but his heart was sent to London for further tests to find out exactly what caused his death. For the family, they simply want closure but the results could be another six months away.

"If there is some kind of heart problem then we need to have the kids tested to see if they have any problems," said Michelle.

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