'Rare Breed - A Farming Year' returns to ITV tonight as seven farming families from across Northern Ireland provide the inside track on the ups and downs of life on the land in 2020. Linda Stewart talks to three farmers.
'I swapped nursing for farming and haven't looked back since'
In the first episode we meet former nurse Margaret Little (27) who runs a progressive dairy enterprise at Drumderg Farm near Tempo with her husband Andrew (28) alongside his dad Raymond. Margaret is busy rearing calves in the farm's 'maternity' unit, driving during silage season, and vaccinating, among many other jobs. She also has several Simmental cattle and later in the series we see her and Andrew's mum, Katherine, developing the vegetable garden for the family.
Margaret is originally from Ballymena and met Andrew four years ago. In January 2018, she took a career break to focus on the farm and decided she wanted to work there full time.
"I was always interested in farming and when I met Andrew, we always said I would come home full time to farm. The nursing wasn't going so well so I decided to bite the bullet and go for it - it's been great ever since," she says. "I milk the cows although Raymond probably does most milking - we all take it in turns. During the winter I rear the calves and we put in the grass and put out all our own slurry. We manage between the three of us.
"We have our own Instagram account for Drumderg Farm showing people what life at Drumderg is like. We've had a lot of positive responses from people who enjoy seeing what we get up to but it's also a community with other people who farm and we're able to learn things from them and they learn things from us."
Margaret says the Instagram account has helped them to forge friendships with other farmers who get what the life is like.
"Unless you farm yourself, sometimes you don't understand the dedication and the worry - if you don't feel like getting up, you just have to get up anyway."
The programme follows the couple through the farming year, putting the cows out to grass, the herd undergoing TB testing and the livestock vaccinations.
"With dairy farming, there's always something to do and it's busy all year round, so there's always something to film, whether it's working with the calves, or the building work, or what a day on the farm looks like," Margaret says.
"In the last couple of years, we went from 70 to 120 cows and bought another 30 heifers last year. We've put up two cow sheds in the last three or four years, which is quite a lot as well."
After the Covid outbreak began, producer Kelda Crawford McCann visited the farm on her own to do some of the filming while keeping her distance. The couple also used GoPro cameras to film their work.
Margaret says the farm just had to keep going as usual during the pandemic. "People still needed to eat food and it still needed to be produced, so day-to-day life on the farm didn't really change - just the social aspects of going places and seeing people had to change."
'Farming has given me a totally different outlook'
Tonight we also meet accountant Des Kelly, who owns a cattle and sheep farm near Ballygawley which is run full time by herdsman Rodrigo Ferreira from Brazil. There's a new year's surprise in the form of six new lambs and the pair get to grips with a new hi-tech feeding machine for the cattle.
Dad-of-four Des (56) is a partner in chartered accountants CavanaghKelly which employs around 80 people in its offices in Dungannon, Omagh and Enniskillen.
"Farming is my evening and weekend job, and my day job is very different," he says.
"I helped out on the farm when I was young, but I wouldn't have been working on the land until 15 years ago when I got a bit of land and just got into it.
"It's busy enough on the farm, but it's great - you go home in the evening, leave your work behind you and it's a totally different outlook and perspective, with simple problems."
The 250-acre farm is all in pasture apart from about 20 acres of barley grown for his own straw and barley which is fed to stock. The pedigree Hereford herd are all run commercially with no showing, but Des has judged cattle at various shows and was elected president of the Hereford Cattle Society for 2019.
He also keeps Friesian caves, more than 120 crossbred Texel/Suffolk ewes and a flock of around 30,000 poultry. Rodrigo began working with him part time a few years ago and is now full time.
"Rodrigo was working for a neighbour and I asked him to work with me - he's been over here for about 10 years. He comes from a farming background and he really does know animals," Des says. "It's great - he's really good at it and you really need that when you're not always on the farm."
Despite lockdown, 2020 on the farm was not much different to other years, apart from the marts being closed, but all private sales were conducted on the farm. Because of the long spell of dry weather in spring, Des was able to get a lot of extra jobs done on the farm after finishing his day's work.
"I was reseeding and working on the shores (drainage) - I was doing things in parts of the farm that you couldn't have got at normally. Every evening I was home, I was away out working, so it was good in that respect," he says.
Filming for the show was interrupted in March and April and missed some of the farm activities, such as reseeding and a lot of the lambing, he says.
"We were asked at the time to do our own video diaries and film what was going on so that they could use it. The children filmed the fertilising and Rodrigo working with the sheep," Des says.
When Covid arrived, Des was in New Zealand and struggled to get home. As lockdown began, his family all came home, and even his daughter who lives in New Zealand managed to come home in June as restrictions were lifted.
"All the family were home, so it was actually great - the house was full again," he says.
'I was always going to return home to the farm'
Later in the series, we meet Emily McGowan (23), from Balloo, who was studying agriculture with business and marketing at Harpers Adams in England and returned home to help on Millbank Farm, her dad Adrian's vegetable farm in Killinchy. It's a sixth-generation farm that grows more than 40 varieties, from swedes to squash, carrots and kale. Emily launched a farm shop in Saintfield in 2019 and has been developing it during the pandemic.
"We set up the shop in June 2019 and it was the first time the farm produce has gone straight to the customer - that was a bit of a juggling match!" she says.
"I'm the third of three girls and I was always going to return home to the farm, but I just didn't want to come home and melt into the woodwork. I wanted to do my own thing.
"A farm shop was always in the back of my mind and when the opportunity came round, we were able to open. Dad was thrown into the deep end of that year while I went back to university and a few things on the farm had to take a back seat."
When Covid happened, she returned home and completed her final year remotely, before throwing herself into the farm shop enterprise.
"We're very lucky that we have a farm that grows most of the vegetables that come into the shop - we have 40 varieties coming from the farm to the shop - you can't get any fresher," Emily says.
"It's all about quality produce - there is no good food without good produce."
The shop was a particularly a colourful sight in Halloween 2020 with its vivid arrays of pumpkins of all shapes and colours stacked on the pavement outside - a boost to the spirits at a time when many of the usual Halloween activities had to be curtailed.
"My dad grew all the pumpkins - it was his first year doing it. It was a big job bringing them in and out every morning and evening," Emily says.
Emily emphasizes the importance of a farm shop to the community at a time like 2020.
"At the start of Covid there was a bit of a strange feeling in the shop. But we followed the guidelines and slowly but surely the customers settled into the new normal," he says.
"We chatted with every customer - we knew that might be the customer's only outing of the day, so we wanted to make it a nice place to come into.
"We've built up such a relationship with different customers who may be going on little outings every day, even just to pick up a couple of things.
"We also have a stall at Saintfield Market on Saturday morning for customers who don't feel comfortable coming into the shop and we can do collection from the shop and farm."
Filming started at the end of February 2020 with lambing and followed the farm business through the months, making sure not to disrupt the working day, she says.
"They covered the market run at 4am and everything from harvesting to planting. There was a lot of environmental work on the farm, which they followed - we do lots of tree planting, hedge planting, bat boxes, and bird cover. It's important to make an effort to give back to nature."
As Brexit kicked in, the business found it a little tricky to source some produce but were lucky to be able to obtain so many varieties from the farm - and Emily feels that things will settle down soon.
When things go back to normal, she is looking to do lots of new things with the Millbank Farm shop.
"We'd love to do a lot more tasting. We love cooking at Millbank and I can't wait until we do that and let people taste our produce," she says.
"We're so grateful for everyone's custom this year and their loyalty."
The new series of Rare Breed - A Farming Year returns to ITV at 7.30pm tonight