As family farms pass from one generation to the next times and methods change, but in many ways things still remain the same. On the Clancy family farm, in the heart of Tipperary overlooking the splendid Slievenamon, father and son Tom and Noel Clancy have very different, yet similar experiences of farming the land.
Tom Clancy was born into a family of 11 onto their farm in Ballyluskey, Drangan. Several decades later so was his son, Noel. Theirs is a modern tale of Irish farming - keeping the farm going, raising families but also finding work off the farm to support their families.
“I was born into farming. I owned my own animals since I was about 10, it was a traditional thing then, in farming. Obviously there was no restriction on what you could have then,” Tom told The Nationalist. This was back in the 1950s. “Farming wasn’t very regulated at that time, but just before that there was compulsory tillage. It was during the war when food was needed,” he recalled. Tom even knows a man who was a ‘tillage inspector’ because ‘like most rules in Ireland most people set out to break them!’ My late father had land free from people just to till it.”
Describing farm life in the 50s Tom says at that time most of the farms around his area were small, and most people kept dairy cows, a few sheep, most people had horses and a few sows.”
Noel was also always in to farming, always had animals and says “everything I did after 18 was geared towards working on the farm.” He said it was a great upbringing.
In the 50s farm communities were part of what has become known as the Meitheal System. “We had it but we didn’t even have a name for it,” Tom said. It was a cooperative system, where neighbours helped each other. “If a neighbour was making hay, you went and helped, or at threshing time. There was no question of money or anything. The threshing mill would come and when the engine started people would hear it and up to 20 people would just appear, with a hay fork on their shoulder, and they were all allocated a job. Nobody would have money but everybody would be fed. There was a bottle of beer or lemonade for people. It was a social thing. In some places they held a dance after, but that didn’t happen around here.”
“At that time it was always important. People didn’t have money if the harvest failed, that was that. It’s not like now, at least you would get money from somewhere,” Noel compared times. “It was a great system and it happened all year around, when cows were calving etc, it still happens.”
The first big changes in Irish farming came in the 60s and 70s with mechanisation and education. As Tom said “a fella was not afraid to talk to the bank manager any more. When I was young the definition of a strong farm was to have a priest in the family, a pump in the yard and a bull in the field.”
He also recalls social norms at the time. “There were very few priests from West of the Shannon - it was a Gold Vale thing, the better areas of land.”
Tom remembers Fr Louis Gleeson and the nights spend in his house by the local Macra group. “He was trying to educate us not just in farming but in culture.”
Education was important then, as now in farming, but it was structured very differently. Courses were run by “a few dedicated people” at ‘Winter farm schools.’ “I remember Michael Maher, who hurled for Tipp, he came to the local hall,” Tom said. “They were totally dedicated people. We arrived in heavy coats because the place was freezing and they gave hours of lectures.”
At the time the emphasis was on expansion with one tutor’s dictum “another cow, another sow” Tom remembers. Noel compares this to a very similar state of affairs now: under the targets for farms in the 2020 strategy increased production is encouraged, including a 50% increase in pig production, and in agricultural college the emphasis is very much on producing more.
When Tom was younger Macra was very active. “It was very important. It was social but it was also educational, probably more than anything else. If you had a club you could organise people for courses.
Education is more important than ever for young farmers, Noel pointed out. While farm colleges closed during the Celtic Tiger years there are now waiting lists to get into them. Courses are also run by Teagasc. But young farmers have the resource of the internet and are better educated before they take over the farm. “I went to Ag college and studied environmental science. I’m back doing the certificate in agriculture now. Now you need to qualify for stamp duty and other regulations.”
Macra, of course, is also still a vibrant organisation of which Noel is a member.
“At that time you just physically worked,” Tom said. “It was more simple,” Noel agrees, “The environment then didn’t come into it.” 25 years ago farmers were told they could use a local river or stream as an overflow system, now that it totally frowned upon.
Tom remembers that when he was young creamery effluent went straight into he river and it was full of trout, a lot more then than it has now. “The stream would actually be white!”
The difference now is that farm run off contains a lot more chemicals, Noel said.
“There is a lot less pollution now than then but the difference is they were small farms. Now if you get an incident of pollution from a farm it can be serious,” Tom added.
Another similarity between the men is their role as ‘part time’ farmers. Tom believes he was one of the first farmer to realise the need to work outside the farm , 40 years ago. He says it has been one of the biggest changes in his lifetime, people realising it is easier to make a living off the farm.
Today, Noel says, farm incomes are a disaster, except in dairying. Even top dry stock farmers are dependent on payments to make a full time living. A disadvantage to working off-farm , however, is that you can’t dedicate your time to farming and have as productive a farm. It’s about finding a balance.
Before this change came about many sons and daughters of farm families didn’t even get married, because they believed the farm would not support a family. Tom describes hoe “half a generation in front of me whole families stayed at home, didn’t get married. Nice people, good people who would have made good parents. It’s sad. By my time we had more options and going in to Europe was the biggest thing that changed that.”
The changes in farming have affected more than farmers, Tom says. “Going back the years most people in towns would have been close to farming,” they came from farm families, worked on farms or holidayed on farms, but that has changed in recent generations. Noel observes that you’d be amazed by the people who don’t understand the farming life.
There have been many other changes in farming in the years between Tom and Noel starting to farm. These days the role of the vet has changed and they have become more of an advisor to farmers rather than just someone to call in an emergency. Noel says that paperwork has become a “massive” part of being a farmer too - farmers must fill out nutrient management plans, calculate fertilizer needed and the nitrates and phosphorus produced on the farm, as well as herd movements and cross compliance forms that must be filled. But online systems can be used for much of this, another unheard of system in the 50s.