A farmer who embraces change

Posted on: 4th March, 2019

Category: Farming

Contributor: Mary O'Brien

Farm partnerships can help to improve your work-life balance and develop your farm business, as Kilbrittain farmer Lawrence Sexton has learned through firsthand experience. Lawrence is part of a three-way partnership ‘LJG Dairy’ with two neighbours, John Hallissey and Guy Scott, milking over 400 crossbred cows, and rearing their followers on three blocks of land in West Cork.

Teagasc and the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (DAFM) identify farm partnerships as being ‘critically important to the future development of agriculture’. There are almost 850 formally registered on the Department of Agriculture Food and the Marine Register of Farm Partnerships.

The LJG Partnership is one of five West Cork farming families involved in supplying milk used in the creation of the award-winning Five Farms Irish cream liqueur. Five Farms is a successful joint US-Irish venture between McCormick Distilling Company in Weston, Missouri, and Irish drinks industry veteran Johnny Harte.

“The Carbery Group was looking for co-ops to vulunteer suppliers of milk to be used in the liqueur. Barryroe Co-op answered the call and five of us were chosen,” explains Lawrence, who is also quick to point out how “all of the farmers who supply Carbery are benefitting from this, it’s not just the five farms.” The Carbery Group in Ballineen processes the farmers’ milk and supplies the cream used in the creation of the liqueur. 

The other families involved are the O’Mahony’s, the Coleman’s; the McCarthy’s and the Tuthills.

“It’s a great initiave by Carbery and more of these niche product initiatives will pay back the farmers well,” says Lawrence.

Lawrence left his career in building in 2003 to take over the family farm with his wife and son, Judy and Sean. At the time, there were only 50-60 cows.

Lawrence first partnered with John Halliseey in 2007 and Guy Scott joined in the partnership in 2012.

“John an myself knew each other through local GAA events and so on and when we both attended a farm partnership organised by Teagasc at Darrara Agricultural College we got talking afterwards,” says Lawrence. Farm partnerships were a relatively new idea in Ireland at the time so it took Lawrence and John about two years to work things out all the details. “It’s important to make sure that everything is divided out properly at the start and then not to be afraid to go back and say if something isn’t right,” explains Lawrence.

“If something isn’t working, you have to bring it up immediately,” he continues. “There has never been any disagreement over money. Once the sharing of workload is worked out at the start, there shouldn’t be a problem.”

An avid sportsman and chairman of Kilbrittain Underage GAA club, Lawrence says that a good routine is the key to a good work-life balance. “The idea behind the partnership is that you can have more numbers but it’s less labour-intensive. John and myself took it in turns to milk every second week, which gave us every second weekend off.”

After Guy joined in 2012, the following year the partnership started employing labour to help with the milking. There are now two full-time and three part-time staff employed by LJG Dairy.

Lawrence’s wife Judy, a teacher, also helps out with the calves and his son Sean is very active on the farm. “We’re very lucky to have such great young help around the yard,” says Lawrence. “The way I see it, the young help makes the old fellas go quicker,” he says laughing.

Lawrence is currently in charge of the milking with help from the staff, John looks after the young stock and Guy takes care of farm maintenance.

A member of the Irish Grassland Association, Lawrence’s focus is on maximising profit through grass, and putting in place a low-cost, effective infrastructure, with the goal of grazing for 300-plus days in the year.

Launched in 2013, PastureBase Ireland is a grassland measurement database, which allows farmers to evaluate medium to long-term performance from the farm. “PastureBase is fantastic,” says Lawrence. “It can be difficult to grasp at the start, but once you get into it, you’re mad to find out how you’re doing on a weekly basis.”

Lawrence takes part in two farm discussion groups, Timoleage and Greenfield, and stresses the importance of social engagement for farmers. “In my parents’ time farmers met at the creamery, the mart, a match or the pub. That doesn’t happen any more so farmers have to make more of an effort to meet up with each other. After the snow last year, I went to one of the discussion groups and there was one farmer who shared all the things that went wrong for him. It put things in perspective for the rest of us. The postiive was that we all started thinking of ways we could help him out. Although it’s a wonderful way of life, farming can be very lonely if you’re working on your own. There’s always someone with a new idea at the discussion groups too, which is very interesting.”

LJG has introduced an automatic gate latch on the farm in the last few months. “It’s a very simple thing…it basically opens the gap and the cows ‘hopefully’ come in,” he says. “They do 90 per cent of the time. You can operate it through an app on your phone but I just put on a timer.”

Lawrence also stresses the importance of taking time off from the farm. “The 12 months up to last August were the hardest I’ve ever put down,” he says. “With the snow and the drought, it was relentless. You need some outlet like taking a holiday. We went to Schull for two days after the snow and it was such a relief to get away, even just for a few days. The partnership means that when you do go on holdiay you don’t have to worry.

“As there is labour on this farm, our finishing time is approx 5pm.”

Although the current uncertaity of Brexit is affecting everyone in particular farmers, Lawrence still has hopes for a soft Brexit. “There are 50-60 food trucks going into the UK from Ireland and the rest of the EU every hour. What are they going to do for food?” he says. “I think they’re crazy leaving the biggest free trade market in the world.

“Grass-based milk commands a premium in a lot of markets and Carbery has put a lot of work into preparing for Brexit. There’s a big investment gone in there so they can take the extra milk and futureproof the factory for markets other than the UK.”

With Ireland having big EU emission reduction targets to meet in 2030, in particular in agriculture, Lawrence says that farmers do understand that they have to take huge strides to save the environment. “There’s always room for improvement but farmers are getting more efficient,” he stresses. “There are less cows in the country than in 1984 and less fertiliser being spread than in the 80s. There’s 1.5 times more food being produced off the same resources. It’s not just farmers…everyone is going to have to make big changes to save the planet.”

For young people getting into farming, Lawrence gives advice from experience. “I would say get the basics right at the start…your grass, your cow, your soil fertility. Also make sure you have a good lifestyle…it’s good to have a hobby or something to take you off the farm.”

Lawrence loves to travel and has visited farms and different industries all over the world. “I love to see the passion that these people in factories work with. You can see the same passion in the people working in the Carbery Group. They know that they’re not going to be making the same cheese for five or ten years, there is always new initiatives and change happening.”

Like anything, partnerships move on and people move on within them. “You have to be open to that change,” says Lawrence.

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