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Balmoral Show: Farming women tell of life on the land and the event they wouldn't miss

As the Ulster Farmers' Union celebrates its centenary, two farmers' wives tell Stephanie Bell of the challenges facing people in rural communities and how they are seeking to improve the lot of NI's isolated families


Farmers Shaw and Fiona Hanna

Farmers Shaw and Fiona Hanna

Mum-of-four Joy Rollston on her farm outside Newry

Mum-of-four Joy Rollston on her farm outside Newry

Shaw and Fiona with their children, Ewan (2), Charlie (5), Zoe (6), and
Callum (8) walking through their oilseed rape crop

Shaw and Fiona with their children, Ewan (2), Charlie (5), Zoe (6), and Callum (8) walking through their oilseed rape crop

Farmers Shaw and Fiona Hanna

As all roads lead to the Balmoral Show this week, it will be an extra special event for the Ulster Farmers' Union as it celebrates its centenary. The union is staging a host of events throughout 2018 to mark its 100th anniversary and has set itself the ambitious target of raising £100,000 towards the running costs of Northern Ireland's Air Ambulance.

Farmers will be invited to have their memories recorded at a special stand at this year's Balmoral Show, which will honour the contribution of members over those 100 years.

The stand has been designed to highlight all that is good about agriculture and the work of local farmers during the union's lifetime.

Food will yet again focus on local produce and the union has appointed Old Barn to cater on the stand over the four days with a menu designed to champion each sector of farming.

Known as 'the voice of farmers', the member-led organisation has promoted the farming industry through many challenges and political changes, including both world wars and the partition of Ireland as well as the BSE crisis in 1996 and the foot and mouth outbreak in 2001.

The union is currently involved in securing the best deal for agriculture during the Brexit negotiations, seeking solutions in relation to the border, trade deals, direct support and access to labour.

We caught up with two farmers' wives, who are also active members of the UFU, to give us a glimpse into life on a modern day farm and what the Balmoral Show means to them.

'It's so diverse - you'll find something new each year'

Ex-Armagh City councillor Joy Rollston lives on a poultry and dairy farm outside Newry. Chair of the Ulster Farmers' Union rural affairs committee, she is a passionate cook who runs charity cooking events and also works as a cookery demonstrator for a local food firm. Joy is married to William (46), and they have four children, Daniel (24), Jayne (22), Stuart (15) and 13-year-old Jack. Joy says:

I grew up on a small farm and always said I wouldn't marry a farmer. I met my husband, who also grew up on a farm, on a blind date in the local pub, and he asked to see me again over a game of pool.

Growing up, I was one of six and Mum and Dad got us out and about. We went to the local youth club and music lessons and were in choirs and played badminton, so we never felt isolated growing up in a rural community.

I had a bit of a health scare a few years ago when I was on Armagh Council and lost my voice for four months. I left the council to spend a year on the farm to get better. I started working on the farm and found it addictive. I just loved being outside.

I also help out with milking. We have 160 dairy cows and two houses of chickens, and no two days are the same.

It can be hard work, but it's so rewarding.

Today, I am waiting on the vet to come to scan two heifers.

It was when I first lost my voice and was sitting at home that I watched my first ever cookery show, Australian MasterChef. I really got into cooking after that. Now I collect cookery books and have them all over the house.

I was runner-up twice in an All-Ireland cook-off competition, and as a result of that I was approached by a local food producer, Pinkertons, who I now do recipes and demonstrations for.

I have created some of my own sauces, and at the Balmoral Show this year I will be on the cookery stand, The Mighty Spud, cooking my own recipes for two days on Friday and Saturday.

I also hold fundraising Can't Cook, Won't Cook events and recently staged one and raised over £5,000 towards the union's centenary charity fund for the air ambulance. I have been involved with the UFU for 15 years on their rural affairs committee, which is predominantly made up of women. This is my second year as chair of the committee.

We deal with all the other issues outside of commodities, seeds and grains. We deal with things like the state of the roads and anything that is impacting on people. We would try and meet with agencies and get issues resolved.

I am also the first lady chair of the Armagh group of the union, and we meet every month and would have a different theme to our meetings. I also organise outings and trips away.

When I joined the union, it was a real eye opener to exactly what they do at headquarters.

From the technical team to the president and vice-president, they all work so hard and do so much for the farming community.

One of the big issues which I have taken an interest in recently is the closure of rural schools.

I have been working to highlight the dreadful impact of the cuts on our rural schools.

I am also the president of Aughnacloy WI (Women's Institute), a role I absolutely love.

The Balmoral Show is no doubt a highlight in farming. It is so diverse. You could be a farmer for 25 years, but you will still find things there that are new to you.

I will be busy cooking, but it is just a great place to come to, whether you are a member of the farming community or not.

'It's a shop window for the farming industry'

Fiona Hanna (35), a chartered accountant, lives on an arable farm in Rathfriland with her husband, Shaw (39), and their four children, Callum (8), Zoe (6), Charlie (5) and two-year-old Ewan. Fiona is a board member of the UFU and also serves as treasurer of the Bank of Ireland Open Farm Weekend, a UFU-led initiative to open working farms to the public in June each year. She is also on the Next Generation Development Forum. She says:

I was brought up on a dairy farm - my parents and brother farm together. My husband was also brought up on a dairy farm, but he worked in various places before we found ourselves back running our own farm.

He started a small enterprise that has grown. We now have wheat, barley, oats and oilseed rape crops.

I think today our biggest pressure on the farm is time. I think that's true of everyone nowadays. There has recently been another farming tragedy and I don't know if there are more accidents now, but it feels like there are more. I wonder if the pressure of time leads to things going wrong.

Unstable pricing is another challenge. Prices go up and down, which it makes it very hard to plan.

We planted seeds last October that won't be ready until this summer. By the time we come out of Europe, we don't know what will be happening to those crops because we don't know with Brexit what the tariffs will be. Weather is another issue, and farmers always talk about the weather. My children even know how to look up the weather apps because they hear me and my husband talking about it all the time.

It can be isolating living on a farm. When I was on maternity leave, I remember joking that I brought the postman in for a cup of coffee because he was the only person I saw all day. Although it was a joke, it was very true.

If you were in the town, you would probably walk down to the local shops or coffee house and get out more and see people, but I wouldn't change it for the world. I am looking out my window now at our garden and crops and fields, and there isn't another building in sight.

Also, my children are constantly outside, and I haven't yet had to buy them a game console, which I think is great, although they do have a computer and I am teaching them to type.

Broadband is a big issue facing many farmers because often farms can be so far away from the cables and from the road.

That's a constant battle because more and more Department of Agriculture and Rural Affairs forms all have to be filled in online.

I am involved in the Next Generation Forum with the UFU, which is focused on thinking about the future for the next generation.

Sometimes I feel we are not the next generation, but our children are. Experience of the older generation is also very important.

My father is very active and supportive. At our peak times, he is the first one there to help out, and that's true of most farming communities, who will be there to help each other out and wouldn't see anybody stuck, and that's also why the union is so important.

I've also been involved in organising the Open Farm Weekend, which is held for two days in June. It has 15 farms throwing open their doors to allow the public and schools to come in and see what is involved in farming.

It started in 2012 and is something I really believe in, because it gives people a chance to see where their food comes from and what happens on a farm.

The Balmoral Show really is a huge event in farming. I will be helping out at a stand for two days and then going with my children because it is a great family day out.

You get to talk to a lot of people and we would talk to oat suppliers and also have the opportunity to maybe meet new people we can supply. It is a shop window for the industry as well as a good day out.

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