You wouldn’t normally expect to find a farm in rural Ireland mentioned in the Lonely Planet but thanks to a group of five enterprising family farmers, West Cork Farm Tours, which is proving to be a roaring success, it gets much more than a mere mention in the travel guide!
Marguerite and Michael Crowley, Bauravilla, Skibbereen are one of three dairy farms involved in West Cork Farm Tours. The other two include a suckler and pig farmer.
Overall Winners of Carbery Milk Quality Award 2016, and runners-up in the National Milk Quality Awards last year, the Crowley’s take fierce pride in maintaining a standard of excellence in all aspects of their farm, from milking to animal welfare to sustainability.
The Crowleys now milk 170 cows on 74 hectares.
“Michael’s father was milking 29 cows the year we took over the family farm,” says Marguerite. “We’ve built it up steadily since then. Our milk solids are good so we’re getting four to five cent above the co-op average milk price.”
Marguerite puts the success of their farm down to attention to detail. “We’re both in the parlour and are very particular about cleanliness and the health of our animals. We know our animals so we know straight away if there is something wrong with one of them. Michael is really passionate about our grass budgeting and the cows are sent straight out to grass. He cross-breeds so we have Fresian-Jersey cows, which have better milk solids and are easier to calve than the big Holstein-Friesian breed.”
With five children, farm life is also family life.
“As soon as they were old enough, the kids were all involved with the farm,” says Marguerite. “The eldest Brendan (21) is now farming in New Zealand, Aisling (19) is away studying in Tralee but helps out when she’s home at the weekends, Michelle (17) is doing her Leaving Cert, and the twins Gavin and Colm (15) are both hoping that Brendan will stay in New Zealand so they can take over the farm one day!” she says laughing.
“There are no two days the same, which I think is why we all love it so much.”
As she speaks, Marguerite gives a discreet glance at the ‘calving station’, on the television in the kitchen, which is left switched on 24-7. “You really have to keep an eye on the first-time calvers,” she explains. “There’s always one quiet calf who becomes a pet,” chimes in Gavin, one of the twins. “Gavin is animal mad whereas Colm is more into tractors and machinery,” explains Marguerite smiling.
“Michael gets about 90 per cent of the herd calved in six weeks and after that there are always a few stragglers but we usually finish up about mid April.”
Marguerite prefers to stay in the milking parlour while Michael goes in and out to the calves or does his own AI in May or June. “Most farmer’s wives look after the calves but I’m happiest when I’m inside in the parlour,” she says. “I love milking.”
Family is important to the Crowley’s. Michael’s mother lives just next door and calls over every morning. “After Granda passed away, Aisling started staying over every night with nana and she still does any time she’s home,” explains Marguerite. One of his sisters lives on the other side of the hedge and another one just down the road, so we’re surrounded by family.”
Marguerite went out to work when Brendan was a baby but after Aisling was born she said it made more sense for her to stay home.
“When Brendan was a baby and I was working, Michael and his mother were at home with him. Michael had a car seat in the tractor and Brendan went everywhere with him.
“I feel very grateful that I was able to stay at home with the children when they were small. I was there for every milestone growing up and was able to take them to and from school every day.”
Marguerite isn’t from a farming background. Her mother ran a guesthouse in Baltimore and her father worked in construction. “We didn’t even have a dog or a cat at home with the guesthouse, so I never really had anything to do with animals until I came here,” she says. “Now as well as the cows, the kids have two ponies and we have a dog, cats and 12 hens.”
After finishing a course in Business Studies, Marguerite went to London to work, which is where she met Michael, who was working in the construction industry. In 1994, the couple moved back to West Cork – Marguerite to a job at Drinagh Co-op in Skibbereen and Michael to take over the family farm. They got married in 1995.
During the summer months, Marguerite starts milking every morning just after 6am before bringing the kids to school. Then it’s time to finish feeding the calves or washing out the parlour with Michael. After breakfast she spends half an hour every day catching up on paperwork, calf registrations and so on.
Dinner is served in the middle of the day like in most farming households. “A big pot of something that feeds whoever’s here,” says Marguerite laughing.
Most evenings, other than this time of year, milking is finished at six in the evening, so if the kids have an activity, usually football, bowling or hurling, Marguerite or Michael can bring them. “Most evenings we go off somewhere, even if it’s just for a spin or a walk. It’s nice to get out when you’re here all day,” says Marguerite.
This time of the year it’s all hands on deck and the Crowleys can’t travel far. “One of us has to be here all of the time with the calving,” explains Marguerite. “We wouldn’t change it either though. We’re our own bosses, we get up in the morning and it’s only over the path to the milking parlour. There’s no sitting in traffic. We’re a great team and it’s lovely to be able to work with your best friend every day.”
When things get a bit quieter over the summer months, Marguerite is looking forward to opening the farm gate to tourists, as part of West Cork Farm Tours. Not only do the visitors get a behind-the-scenes look at working farms but they also get to enjoy the hospitality of the families in their kitchen. And there are in for a real treat in the Crowley house, as Marguerite’s homemade brown bread is famous. She has even had celebrity chef Clodagh McKenna asking her for the recipe!
“It’s good fun and very enjoyable,” says Marguerite. “The American tourists we’ve had on the farm so far were all fascinated with our ‘wellies’ and the clothes line in the milking parlour,” she says smiling.