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Northern Ireland farmers on the challenges and rewards of life in agriculture

As the industry looks forward to the Balmoral Show in two months time, two farmers tell Lisa Smyth about the challenges and rewards of life in agriculture

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John Egerton at his 180-acre farm in Rosslea, Co Fermanagh

John Egerton at his 180-acre farm in Rosslea, Co Fermanagh

John Egerton at his 180-acre farm in Rosslea, Co Fermanagh

Farming is not for the faint-hearted. Farmers work long hours, often in isolation, they can be under significant financial pressure and they are vulnerable to even the smallest changes in the weather.

John Egerton is more than aware of the challenges that face the farming community.

The owner of a 180-acre farm in Rosslea, Co Fermanagh, he has experienced more than his fair share of ups and downs over the years.

The farm itself has been in his family for 70 years.

Originally bought by his father, Thomas, he set it up as a dairy farm and some of John's earliest memories are of helping out around the farm.

However, that's not to say that John always had aspirations to follow his father into the farming industry.

"I had five sisters, I was the only boy and we were all raised on the farm," he says.

"I remember my sister in her pram on the farm, and we would all help out during the summer. It was a lovely childhood.

"One of my sisters was probably more interested in farming than me but it was me who ended up taking it on.

"When I was 18, I was accepted to go to Queen's to study maths. I wanted to be a maths teacher, but my father told me I wouldn't be doing that.

"I went to Greenmount for three years and I actually really enjoyed it, it was probably the best three years of my life.

"Growing up, we lived on the border here and when I was going to secondary school we could never bring any of my friends home because of the Troubles.

"So, I didn't really have a social life but when I went to Greenmount I stayed over and so the social side of it became the whole experience for me."

At the same time, John was gaining a massive amount of knowledge and experience that would help him expand and grow the farm in years to come.

And it was during one of the most difficult periods for the family that he realised the importance of diversification and adapting to survive.

In 1976, the farm was hit by an outbreak of brucellosis, an infectious bacteria that can spread to humans if they come into contact with infected meat or unpasteurised milk or cheese.

John says: "At that time, if you had an outbreak, they took the whole herd and my father lost in the region of 80 to 90 cows.

"They were valued at about £200 per animal for compensation but he had to wait nine months to start again and by that stage, cows cost £400 each.

"It was very difficult for my father and he got very depressed, very withdrawn."

As a result, they made the decision to move into beef finishing - the process where cattle are fed until they are ready to be sold for beef.

They expanded further into farming sheep after John developed an interest in the animal while at Greenmount.

A few years later, they also took on suckler cows as a way to cut costs and increase profit margins.

John is determined to grow the farm further as his three sons have expressed an interest to continue on with the tradition.

He says: "We have had to try and push the farm to the next level to try and make it sustainable to support three families. I have always been into checking figures against other farms to see if what we are doing is paying. That has definitely helped me along the way.

"There have been several challenging periods over the years. Farming as a whole is difficult, but the foot and mouth disease and BSE were major challenges.

"But probably the hardest period came when my father passed away and his will was lost and it took over two years and going to the High Court to get it settled.

"It really was a big lesson in trying to support ourselves because we were allowed to make a living out of the farm, but we weren't allowed to make any improvements or expand.

"In my own mind, it was probably one of the darkest moments in my life.

"I did suffer from depression which I tried to hide from the rest of the family. It was a difficult time and I do wonder how I got through it myself.

"I do think it brought me closer to my wife, Elizabeth, and it has made me more positive now in that I try not to be to negative.

"Lots of people are negative about Brexit but I try to look at the positives - it's not clear what's going to happen or how it's going to affect us.

"However, people go through problems and we've been through problems and got through them and we'll work out something with Brexit too.

"Farming is a wonderful industry, so if someone is starting out I would tell them to be positive and follow their dreams.

"I'm more than happy with the way life has turned out for me."

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