Virtual Farm Weekend aims to connect the public with rural working folk. Aine Toner talks to one family putting sustainability and animal welfare at heart of its agriculture
Hollow Farm in Downpatrick, owned and run by Carrie-Anne and Lee Mooney and their young sons Tobias and Jacob, was established in 2016 when the couple bought the property to create a more sustainable form of agriculture.
“Neither of us came from a farming background, it was our grandparents,” says Carrie-Anne. “I was vegetarian, actually, for a long time because I didn’t like how meat was reared and we sort of joked about that.
“Because we have horses, when we were looking to buy we wanted something that we could self-sustain. We fell in, by chance, to where we are now, and it wasn’t long after that we started with the pigs and went through a couple of breeds to see what worked best.”
The farm grew with pigs — “the easiest animal for us to start with” — then geese, ducks and calves.
Their experience with horses was a “gateway” for the couple: when looking after livestock, the same principles broadly apply across the board.
“We had the space, so it was just a case of making the most of the space that we did have, and the place that we bought or where we are, there’s plenty of barns, outbuildings and sheds and that worked really to our advantage,” she says.
The couple is looking forward to showcasing their work during the Bank of Ireland Virtual Farm Weekend (July 30 to August 1), established to celebrate the Northern Ireland farming industry.
Those from a non-farming background, whose only experience of agricultural life maybe comes from a school trip of years past, can receive a better understanding of how food is produced and the importance of the local supply chain.
In a virtual setting for 2021, visitors will be able to see how important local farming is for everyone’s future.
Both Carrie-Anne and Lee, who are looking forward to the upcoming weekend, had experience when younger of being on a farm and had an inkling of what they were getting themselves into.
“One of the things Lee did at the start was training calves to drink from the bucket on a dairy farm,” says Carrie-Anne.
“I worked with my grandmother at her homeplace, and actually they had a lot of chickens. I was terrified of birds because the chickens used to chase me, and Lee bought me chickens to get me over my fear of birds. Now there’s over 200 of them here, so it definitely did a big U-turn.”
We’ve mentioned pigs already, but one in particular deserves a special mention — Pancake, named in honour of Pancake Tuesday.
“Our sow is wonderful, she’s a wonderful mother, but if there’s a runt that is not going to do, she takes matters into her own hands,” says Carrie-Anne.
“Normally with that, we’re not around; we could come in one day and there’s a piglet missing or it’s dead in the corner and that’s just it. But Lee went in, and the sow had Pancake by a leg.
“So he took it and brought her in. I got her electrolytes made up, we had her with a heat lamp in a big storage container.”
Friends in Churchview Farm provided goat’s milk for Pancake, who was syringe-fed every 90 minutes to two hours, staying in the Mooneys’ spare room for five weeks.
“After about 48 hours we felt she wasn’t going to do. The snow was really bad, and we were out with the kids, and Lee says: ‘Go and get her. We’ve tried, it’s not fair, I’ll put her down now rather than let her linger on. I don’t want to leave her suffering’. He came in and she was standing squealing for a feed — and that was it.”
Born on February 2, the five-month-old animal spends her time outdoors, though she had to make some adjustments.
“It took her a while to learn that she is a pig,” laughs Carrie-Anne. “She thought she was a dog. She’s out because we have two of her siblings who are huge and another two piglets that are a month younger.
"They’re all out, they have their own paddock, so they’re all out in the field together, the five female piglets, and she is the life and soul and is always out to see everybody.” Pancake stole the show at a recent impromptu football match with pre-schoolers. “She’s definitely in a league of her own,” says Carrie-Anne. The family have made the decision that she’ll stay with them as they monitor her wellbeing.
“Because everything we have here has purpose as part of the food chain, nothing stays for the fun of it,” she explains . “But our idea was that we see how far she gets. If the leg starts to go and she’s joining the food chain, we’ll do that, if she’s younger, if she’s older… it’s not that her future is uncertain because she’s always here with us, but her time will be spent here with us, and that’s it.”
Teaching their sons about the cycle of life is no better demonstrated than on a working farm, and it’s something the Mooneys are grateful about. “One of the last pigs that went to the abattoir to be butchered is back in the freezer now. She was called Dumbo because she’d giant ears and my oldest son Tobias was there when she was born,” she explains.
“He helped deliver her, he cleared her airways and put her out to the sow to get her latched on. And they went with their daddy to take her [to the abattoir] and they came with me to the butchers to pick up the meat. They’re fully aware of what it is, and what she’s fed, and the entire cycle and they’re great with it, 100%. Everything has a purpose.
“Now we have the chicks, some of them we’ve hatched, some we’ve bought as day old, and the boys are fully involved in all of that. They’re fully aware of what happens. Christmas dinner, we sit with the turkey we’ve done, the ham, the roast, and all the veg from the vegetable patch. The kids have been involved from start to finish, picking it and washing it. I even get videos of Tobias helping Lee pluck.”
Tobias and Jacob are kept busy with animal feeding and the daily collection of freshly laid eggs, although every day brings an egg hunt as the chickens are a bit choosy about where they lay.
While knowledge is vital, particularly when living on a farm, so too is respect.
“That might be for the food chain, but you wouldn’t be eating if that wasn’t being done so you must respect the animals,” says Carrie-Anne, who is also a poultry diarist for Country Smallholding Magazine. And while work is busy, there’s plenty of time for little farmers to play.
“In the warm days, the boys are in with the pigs, caps on, buckets out, making them a wallow. They go and fill it with water and splash through the mud with the pigs.
“We believe if we’re going to eat it, it’s going to have the life it should have. Otherwise, why do it?”
Carrie-Anne and Lee are keen to stress support between farms and farm owners, which has helped them enormously.
“I actually thought when we would have started that it would be — ‘we do this, if you want to do something, work away on your own’ — and it is the complete opposite.
"We wouldn’t have gotten as far as we have with the advice and the help of others. There’s never a time that you can’t pick up the phone.
“For example, with Pancake I spoke to Robbie Neill from Stonebridge [Cottage Farm] in Crossgar about what to do. We had a couple that he’d hand-raised and they did well because they went together and he gave a bit of advice, and he had powdered milk if we were stuck.
“We had four lambs, they were the kids’ pet lambs, and we had bottle-fed them and sold them on a couple of weeks ago. The boys were told they were their lambs, and they did, they put the work in before school every morning, so they were given money. And now they want to buy a rabbit… so we’re getting a rabbit.
“But Jackie and Damien at Castlescreen Farm had a hutch going and I was round last week collecting it, and they told me where to go and look for the rabbit.”
There seems plenty of activity to keep the family entertained, but plans are being put into place for new additions to Hollow Farm.
“We’re sort of working on a cycle with the pigs and birds, a continual form of meat. We’ve two breeding sows now and we’ve just brought in a new boar, for a nice fresh bloodline,” explains Carrie-Anne. “He’s lovely, really, really nice. And I have the geese, I’ve a lot of geese at the minute, and the chickens.
“Lee’s looking to expand a bit more and get a few cows back in. He would really love a house cow, where we’d get milk, and a few for meat.
“I’m also speaking to a couple of schools about getting involved with education. With what we have here, because of my own kids and what they do, I would like to do partner mornings or have the schools out or visits in.”
With a recent renovation, Lee too hopes his job, which requires him to travel a lot, will allow him to spend more time in Downpatrick.
Lee is a member of the Worshipful Company of Farriers after graduating in 2014 and works freelance across the region with a variety of horses, ponies, donkeys and clients.
He’s also no stranger to the silver screen, having worked as a stunt rider on Game Of Thrones, and he’s currently filming Dungeons And Dragons. Lee rode alongside Hollywood actor Ethan Hawke in Viking film The Northman, set for release next year.
“We restored an old barn that was here. When we moved in, it was about to fall down and we’ve completely restored it,” says Carrie-Anne of her husband, who studied at CAFRE Equine in Enniskillen.
“There’s two stables in it, there’ll be a feed room and a forge is going in. Lee travels with his work and he has a forge in the back of the pickup, but he’d really like to be able to work from home as well.”
Those following Hollow Farm on Facebook can get a sneaky peek of a video created specifically for Virtual Farm Weekend, and viewers can be assured that a longer video will be posted closer to the date.
“With the virtual video, we sort of just showed every aspect of what we do and how we do it,” says Carrie-Anne.
“We do turkeys and hams for Christmas every year, but we’ve only done the meat in the past. This year all the veg has been grown to provide veg boxes, so essentially a one-stop shop for your Christmas dinner.
"There’s a few bits we’re working on with jams and chutneys, cordials and that type of thing.”
For more on Virtual Farm Weekend, see openfarmweekend.com. Follow Hollow Farm on Facebook, www.facebook.com/hollowfarmannadorn/