When women marry into pastures new ...
UTV’s Rare Breed — a Farming Year series, has entranced viewers with its insight into rural life. Helen Carson and Jane Hardy meet the farmers’ wives.
Northern Ireland’s farming community has been put under the spotlight in UTV’s Rare Breeds documentary-cum-reality show on our screens every Monday night. The fly-on-the-wall view of everyday Ulster farming life paints an untarnished picture of rural farmers and their families.
Forget the idyllic portrait painted by other shows like Escape To The Country, because while these farming families may live in some of the most scenic parts of the province, their lives involve hard toil and a round-the-clock commitment to the farm. The seven day a week workload includes tending to animals — with all the feeding, cleaning and welfare issues that arise in a business blighted by the recession. For farmers’ wives rural life can be anything but easy as they combine bringing up a family with a demanding lifestyle in which the economics can be uncertain.
Here, we catch up with some of the wives who appear in the series, and one who chose not to. They talk about the realities of rural life, including the pressure of maintaining a business which has been in some families for several generations.
Interestingly, too, despite all the hard work they say they wouldn’t swap life on the farm for anything else.
‘Holidays can be tough ... I’ve never been abroad’
Cindy Wilson (48) is married to David Wilson (45). They live in Co Fermanagh, where they run a cattle and sheep farm near the Co Monaghan border. They have two children Jack (14) and Robbie (9). She says:
I grew up on a small farm in Co Fermanagh where we had cattle. I always kept animals myself and loved farming, whereas my sister preferred to do the dishes.
David and I were always part of the same social circle which is how we first met. Before we married I always knew then I would be expected to run his family farm by his side.
David’s father and grandfather have raised cattle and sheep on this farm for years.
I also work at the local vet’s clinic where I spend 33 hours as receptionist as well as doing administrative work. Now that the boys are up more, the rest of my time is spent helping David on the farm.
I think it helps to have a background in farming otherwise you would find yourself thrown in at the deep end. It is very hard work so it helps to be used to it and to have that knowledge.
My work at the vet’s is bunched tightly into four days so I have Friday for my housework, then Saturday and Sunday to do whatever needs to be done on the farm.
David and I take it in turns during the lambing season and I do the early morning. I’m not so busy when there is silage being brought in. Farming is very hard. Yes, over the long term it has got easier with more equipment and machines, but in recent years times things have got tough — you have to work a lot harder to make ends meet.
The boys are both very interested in farming and Jack wants to go to Greenmount Agricultural College then come back here to work — that’s the plan at the moment.
We run the farm ourselves and don’t have any workers. So, if we do go away for a holiday we have to get a family member to take over and even then you have to show them the ropes. The longest we would go away for is three days.
I have never been abroad in my life and I don’t feel like I’m missing anything. I have always been like that, I have never wanted to go and visit anywhere else. I have been across the water to Britain, but that’s it.
We don’t really get the time to socialise at all as there is always something that needs doing.
What I love about my life is the freedom it gives me — if I decide to go for a walk, then I can just head out and do it. Naturally, I was quite nervous about a TV crew coming out to film us, but it was so well done we forgot the cameras were there eventually. Besides, it’s really about David and he just got on with his day’s work.”
‘Farmers don’t have straw dangling from their mouths’
Joan Gregg (36) is a biology teacher and is married to dairy farmer Wallace (41). They live on the farm in Ballymena with|children, Amy (7), James (4),| Isabella (3) and Simon |(17 months), She says:
I’ve got a lot on my hands with four children under seven, plus I teach biology to A-level three days a week at Coleraine High School. If needed, I help out on the farm, say when a cow is calving or my husband’s taking a team of cattle to a show and they need a wash and brush-up. And until the third child appeared, I used to do the accounts.
We were approached by producer Kelda Crawford McCann the autumn before last to appear on Rare Breeds. Wallace wanted to take part to show farmers aren’t characters with straw dangling from their mouths, that they run a business and that it’s a hard way of life, nothing like what viewers see on Emmerdale. I chose not to be filmed as since I’d the kids, I don’t do as much as I did and it would have been fake.
We have 140 dairy cows. I have to confess I grew up on a dairy farm in Co Tyrone and knew what I was getting into, although when your parents do the work, you don’t appreciate it.
Wallace told the TV people they could come round and film what was going on, but that he wouldn’t be doing two to three takes to get it right. Kelda was brilliant — she’d ask if we were doing anything, then turn up and make sure not to put us out. The film is 100% genuine, nothing was set up. The series follows the farming year; they started filming at 5am on New Year’s Day last year, showing life going on as normal.
The best bit was probably a calf being born, part of everyday life for us. The kids just go ‘A cow’s having a calf.’ We also filmed artificial insemination as it’s also part of daily farm life. One of my friends said after seeing that programme ‘I didn’t know you did that sort of thing’, but we do.
I’m up at a quarter to six, get the kids up, take them to the childminder and school, go to work, come back, pick up the children, make tea and put them to bed.
Wallace works from 6am to about 8 or 9pm, earlier when it’s rugby practice.
I sometimes say I’m like a single parent. But it’s a brilliant way of life for the children and we wouldn’t have it any other way.”
‘It’s very different from my previous job as a beautician’
Nicola Kane (35) is married to poultry farmer Seamus Kane (38). They live on a farm between |Ballymena and Ballyclare with their children, Charlotte (5) and Pearce (3). She says:
Seamus and I will be married 12 years this August. I’m originally from Larne, but Seamus grew up on this farm where his father and five generations of the family have raised beef and sheep.
My mum was a housewife and my dad a solicitor so I did not come from a farming background at all. I left school aged 17 and opened up my own beauty salon in Ballymena.
I met Seamus through my brother Paul — they were school friends. Although I’ve known him since I was 13, we didn’t start going out together until I was 19. My brother organised a formal and invited Seamus, who then asked me to go with him — it was love’s young dream.
I obviously knew he was a farmer when we got married, but I didn’t realise how driven he was. He runs the farm very much as a business,. He is very good with animals and the stock, but he is not one of those ones that has names for the animals — it is a business primarily.
My input at the start was very little, and it still is. When we had a family we realised it wouldn’t be feasible for me to keep working so the decision was made for me to stay at home. Seamus wanted to diversify into poultry and we knew it would be something I could get involved with too, but I was naive ... and then I was drawn
into the vortex that is running a farm. I do as much as I can but it’s hard with two young children.
My day starts at 6.30am. I get the children ready, take Charlotte to school and try and amuse Pearce, then I spend about a hour feeding and looking after the birds. We get them as chicks and they are reared for meat to be taken away after six weeks. This is when the hard work begins with the bird houses to be cleaned out in preparation for a new crop. Seamus will powerwash the houses and I will help him. My day, though, revolves round the children more — making lunches, dinners and teas.
It is a world apart from what I used to do. Before we had the children, I’d be out in my welly boots and overalls helping Seamus, then I’d go into work in the beauty salon and get the make-up on. I used to think if people could see me like this on the farm, they wouldn’t recognise me. Like any job, farming has it’s frustrations, especially in winter when the weather is rubbish. There is no clocking in or clocking out and nothing really prepares you for it. Also, since having the children it is hard to go on holiday — I can’t just pop into the travel agents and book somewhere as there is always something that comes up. The plus-side is that Seamus is so happy at what he does; he never moans or gets stressed. He loves the variety — one day he is out fencing and the next something else. I couldn’t see him doing a nine-to-five job.
Both of us agree farming will not be forced on the children. They should do whatever they want to do as long as they are happy. I enjoyed the filming, it was very exciting and a good experience.”
Rare Breed — a Farming Year, Mondays, UTV, 8pm