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The big interview with Simon Best: 'Farming and rugby teach you how to be very resilient'

Former Ulster player Simon Best explains to Margaret Canning the benefits of converting sports lessons to agriculture

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Simon Best on his farm

Simon Best on his farm

Simon Best during his playing days for Ulster

Simon Best during his playing days for Ulster

Simon Best on his farm

For his working life at least, it's been business as usual during lockdown for arable farmer and former Ulster Rugby player Simon Best.

Simon (42) runs a crop and pedigree cattle farm outside Poyntzpass, Co Armagh, with his father John and brother Rory, the ex-Ireland rugby captain.

They're the fourth generation of the family to farm on the land.

The farm has long taken part in Bank of Ireland's Open Farm Weekend and it will continue the tradition this year when the event takes place from July 31 to August 2. But due to the restrictions caused by Covid-19, it will be online - though Simon says he hopes that will mean the farm can attract even more interest from virtual visitors.

The farm supplies oats to porridge-maker White's Oats, just a few miles away in Tandragee. It also supplies wheat, oats and other basics for animal feed to farmers nearby, as well as breeding an Aberdeen Angus herd for beef.

While many companies around Northern Ireland downed tools at the start of lockdown, that's just not an option for farmers.

The father-of-three explains: "Farming isn't like any other industry because you can't stop the factory, especially in cereal farming.

"If we turned off our factory we wouldn't be able to start it again as we need crops in the ground at certain times.

"It was business as usual while taking as many precautions as we could. It's a very fortunate position to be in as we could keep normality going."

Lockdown began just as the farm's spring oats and spring beans had to go into the ground. The family also has a composting business, gathering garden waste from councils - an endeavour which also took off thanks to people busying themselves with gardening during lockdown.

Yet even though farmers had to keep going there were worries, particularly for the beef and dairy sector hit by the collapse in demand from the foodservice sector.

"In the context of agriculture, arable farming is no more immune to fluctuations than anywhere else," Simon says.

"We grow crops and cereals and sell them on a commodity market, which is definitely challenging with different standards and regimes to follow all over the world.

"So we're no different on that front to any local producers. We probably have less opportunity to add value given that our processing goes into animal feed in the main, though we do grow oats for White's."

He says planning is a crucial skill - and something he also honed playing for Ulster Rugby. He retired from the sport in 2008 after he was diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat. "I think planning is always something I have been able to bring with me from my sporting background, to be resilient as much as possible," he says.

"That certainly helps and farming helps in the rugby field, maybe more so in that way."

Environmental standards on the farm are crucial. While it's not an organic farm, it is a LEAF (Linking Environment and Farming) farm, which means its produce is grown to a high level of environmental stewardship.

Rapeseed grown on the farm is used for local poultry rations and for pressing for oil producers.

Simon's great grandfather bought the farm in 1921. Simon now works with his dad and four staff. One has been on the Best books for nearly 40 years.

Numbers were bigger in the past when perhaps up to 10 families in the area were supported by the farm.

Simon explains: "Nowadays you don't have the same opportunity to engage so closely with the community, but Open Farm Weekend does allow us to invite people in to advise them on what we do and why, and what the smells they don't like are - if they don't like the smells then at least we can tell them the rationale."

Farming and rugby have always been part of family life. "When we were growing up, rugby wasn't professional, it was just about enjoyment and community interaction," says Simon. "Our dad and grandad were members of Banbridge Rugby Club so were born into it and taken from a very young age.

"We had a passion for getting out and getting involved in team sport and getting the opportunity to play at a much higher level."

Simon started a degree in agriculture at Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 1996, just after the game turned professional. He was following another family tradition as his dad and uncle also studied there.

He is married to Katy, who's the commercial and marketing director at Belfast City Airport. They have three children, Jack (10), nine-year-old Sam and Lucy (6).

Like so many other families, the adult Best siblings have been thrown back into close proximity as a result of lockdown. Brother Mark and sister-in-law Karen are now back in Poyntzpass from London with their three kids, as is younger sister Rebecca.

He enjoys farming with Rory though his brother's main focus is on the cattle and breeding them for beef. Rory retired last year and it's now 12 years since Simon's retirement from rugby.

But there's no escaping the game - not that he would want to. "I'm very much still involved with Banbridge and Ulster. You can't get away," he admits.

"Your playing career is only part of it as it's so important to give back to the game, whether as a coach or administration.

It's a bit like the farming side of things - you've got to make it sustainable. You preserve your land and assets for future generations and you have to look after the grassroots of rugby so that it will be there for the future."

Like many farmers, Simon was disappointed when MPs failed to vote for an amendment to the Agriculture Bill which would have protected UK farmers from imports of lower-standard food from overseas following Brexit.

"We have to keep working on that one and ensure that the government respects the standards we adhere to, which are what customers expect," he says.

"We need to make sure the market and value we attain for those foods is where it needs to be to allow us to farm in a sustainable way."

He's hopeful that holding Virtual Farm Weekend will increase the reach of the event.

"Most of our visitors have been local in the past though we have had a few from as far away as Donegal. Hopefully this year we'll have a bigger catchment to show what we do," he says.

Farmers, he believes, must become more evangelical about what they do.

"The key is to promote more of what we do and what we produce. We're entering a period of the unknown as we don't know what UK agricultural policy is going to look like in terms of trade agreements and imported food," he says.

"It's up to us as farmers, producers and processors to explain what we do to provide ethically-produced food at high animal welfare standards, in a socially-aware and environmentally-aware way."

Bank of Ireland Virtual Farm Weekend takes place from July 31 to August 2

Belfast Telegraph