Successful series A Rare Breed – A Farming Year returns to TV tomorrow evening. Aine Toner spoke to three of those participating
Fourteen families across Northern Ireland will share their 2021 up and downs and give viewers an insight into the realities of farming life on the show. The tenth series includes a dairy farm, newly engaged couple and some familiar faces involved in farm development.
Fourth generation sheep farmer Áine Devlin (23) from Kilcoo, Co Down, was a ‘wee bit nervous’ about putting herself out on the show but felt it’s important to show people what farming is like from a farmer’s perspective.
“You’re born into it so you’re seeing everything from day one,” she says.
“You’re seeing it in real life whereas you can see things on social media that people say about farming and it’s so far away from the truth. You’re in it, you’re involved in it and then you read this stuff that’s so farfetched. It can be frustrating at times for farmers.
“It’s a way of life,” she says of her work, helping look after over 400 family sheep on their farm on the Mournes. Áine also has her own pedigree Texel and Lanark sheep.
“I enjoy the aspect of breeding sheep. You’re selling male and females and they’ll go on for breeding and they’ll have a longer life as such. It’s nice to be able to that you’re purchasing food but it’s also nice to say that you’re purchasing breeding sheep as well,” she says.
“I call it work but I couldn’t imagine me doing anything else. I remember when I was in school, I was never to go into farming.
“I was always told, ‘become a nurse, you’ll always get work.’ I worked in nursing homes and places for adults with learning difficulties and I loved it but there was always something bringing me back to where I’m supposed to be — but the whole time it was in front of me.”
In the new series, Áine is training up the next generation of sheepdog with her pup, Meg.
“You can see how important sheepdogs are for sheep farmers because we’re using them every day,” she says.
“It takes over a year to train a dog for sheep. Meg has got all the instincts, she does everything I need her to do to get my jobs done.
“I enjoy the training but whenever you’re farming or helping at home, or you’re out doing contract work [as a shepherdess] and you have your own flock, it’s very difficult to get the time and it takes a lot of time.
“I’ve committed to it because it’ll be worth it in the long run. Any spare 20 minutes you have, you’re going with the pup and getting 20 minutes here and there.”
Áine is also a sales agent of Agri-Lloyd so between driving from job to job, checking on her flock, and sheepdog training, her plate is well and truly full. Still, she loves her day job, supplying farmers with supplements and health products for their animals.
“It’s an extra wee bit of income but I absolutely love working for Agri-Lloyd and I’ve learned a lot.”
Áine wants to be a female role model for those interested in similar work and highlights the development of women within farming.
“Whenever you’re growing up, you just do what the generation has done before but now there’s a lot of science and technology in a lot of aspects of farming. I find you can improve things and there’s always room for improvement,” she says.
“I go out and do pregnancy scanning on sheep. Whenever I was growing up, there was no such thing as a scan woman; you would never have heard of a woman come to the farm to do a job, whereas now it’s different.
“There are women doing tractor driving, women like myself doing sheep scanning, women doing AI [artificial insemination], we’re doing it all now — there’s nothing stopping us.
“I think it was just a mindset that was made for us.
“I remember in school saying, ‘I think I want to go to Greenmount [agricultural college],’ and they were saying, ‘You don’t actually think you want to run around after sheep your whole life? There’s no money.’
“I know now that I’m never going to be rich, but I think I’m very rich in passion and determination.
“I don’t mind that I can’t afford the fanciest things but I’m happy that I get up every morning doing what I enjoy.”
Later in the series we’ll meet Alastair Crown, who runs Corndale Farm just outside Limavady. He lives on the farm with his wife and three children.
His calls his career ‘ten years in the making,’ after leaving a role in electronic sales to focus exclusively on farming.
“It started in October 2012 when I bought my first ever pigs. It really spiralled from there. I’d no real background in farming, I didn’t really know a lot about pigs,” he explains.
“The desire for the pigs was just purely because I had an interest in food. I wanted to be able to produce good quality pork for ourselves, for the family, for my friends. I found it very hard to find that, the free-range element of it.
“I thought we’ll try a couple in the backyard, and we’ll go from there. It was four wee small pigs in my dad’s veg garden and then it just kind of expanded from there.”
The farm now has upwards of 200 pigs and like the title of the show suggests, is home to several rare breeds.
“The rare breed end of the pig is very important to us for a number of reasons. That’s what we started with, the Saddleback,” says Alistair.
“The actual pig itself and its composition lends itself very well to what we’re doing now with the charcuterie.
“They are a more native, more heritage breed so they have more fat cover on them, which is obviously desirable with the charcuterie products; we need that fat to keep our products tender and moist through the drying process.
“Over the past few years, we’ve been investing in different breeding stock, pedigree lines and different breeds as well. We have the Saddleback, we have the Oxford Sandy & Blacks, we have Middle Whites and a few Berkshires, and they’re all classified as rare breed pigs.
“There was no business plan or any idea when I bought the first four pigs, it was really just a hobby, something to do and hopefully get a nice bit of pork at the end of it. It was two or three years later when we’d had grown the herd a wee bit and had more pigs on the ground that we thought, we need to make them pay for themselves.”
The charcuterie side of things developed in 2015 after Alistair spotted a gap in the market. Within a year, it was a fully-fledged business.
“We’re very proud of what we’ve done, where we’ve come from, from not being traditional farmers as such to probably having one of the biggest outdoor pig farms in Northern Ireland. Our products are going all over the UK and the Republic of Ireland as well.”
Alistair and his family are fans of the show so were delighted to be asked to participate. Viewers will be given an insight into the business, from farming to feeding, husbandry to hog roasts.
“It’s one of my favourite sayings, every day is a school day,” he says when asked about having to learn a wealth of information for his new career.
“You’re always learning something. I had to learn a lot about pigs and the breeding end of things. It was fine when we were rearing four pigs but when we started buying breeding stock, learn about farrowing and artificial insemination, it was a very steep learning curve.
“Saying that, my dad was always involved in agriculture. He worked on farms all his life, so he had a bit of experience with pigs and was able to kind of keep me on the right track. His knowledge has been very valuable.”
Last year was an important one for Corndale, moving to a new factory after outgrowing the initial production facility.
“It’s allowed us to expand our production, take on new business and we were able to get our EU export license off the back of it and employed more staff,” says Alistair. “We’ve got our SALSA accreditation now as well. We’ve big growth plans for 2022 — we’re going to look for business further afield.”
Father of five James Alexander farms with his family near Randalstown. The farm sprawls several hundred acres where he produces and sells quality sheep and beef cattle.
A familiar face on Rare Breed, his hope is to “show the greater public what we do and the farming side of things, to give an insight into what really happens.”
James runs a massive operation on his farm with his Jalex herd comprising around 750 ewes, including mules and Suffolks, and over 1,000 cattle of a mixture of breeds.
As well as looking after a huge herd of livestock James also runs the business Alexander Tractors with his wife, Ruth and father, Nelson.
It’s a lot of work but it’s where his heart lies, he says.
“I often wished I loved it a bit less,” he laughs, “because we could be financially better off, but I really enjoy producing stock and keeping stock.”
James’s children all love giving a hand on the farm especially with the sheep and lambs.
“Every year, they’re more and more useful to me and useful to us as a family — then it’s more and more fun for us to do things together,” he says of his children.
“I try and reflect that when they’re eating their dinner and what they’re eating. The odd time you’d get, ‘but this is a baby lamb,’ but they are aware that the baby lambs wouldn’t be there if it wasn’t for the fact that they’re there to be meat and be sold for primarily meat.”
In the first episode, viewers follow James’s inaugural New Year’s sale which conflicts with another important date — his 14th wedding anniversary.
“I was stressed out beforehand that I didn’t realise it was and then it came to me when I’d calmed down a bit,” he says.
As with many sales across the country the majority of the trading must happen online, and so James has to make the most of online videos.
“All the tractor auctions I view are online and the cattle weren’t ever online, so Covid sped up the process of getting them all online.
“As soon as I got the chance, I used online to move forward with the cattle and sheep business,” he explains.
“It’s the same as anything the public use for buying clothes online for example, it gives a further reach and a much bigger customer base. Someone within drivable distance from the farm can stay at home and do their shopping, the same way the public uses Tesco.”
James also sells in-calf heifers at regular sales held on his farm which have proved very successful.
“I’m not a big fan of taking things as they come, I like to plan how to go forward,” he says about being on the go.
“Last year with lockdown, it gave us a bit more time to think about what to do. That’s what we did last year, taking the farm to the next level. This year we’ll be looking at spending a bit more time at the tractor yard to get it back to where you want it to be.
“You can’t be complacent; you can’t do the same thing every night and every day. If you’re complacent in farming you can end up being lost — just because you’ve done it before doesn’t mean you have to do it the same way again.
“If I rested a bit more, I’d have a much easier life!”
Rare Breeds – A Farming Year is on tomorrow at 7.30pm on UTV