I have to admit it! I am an accidental farmer.
I was born into a small farm in Co. Limerick where my parents milked about 25 cows in the 1980s. I didn’t really consider farming as a career option as young man. Not until I found myself studying chemistry at University and feeling very uneasy about it.
In retrospect, I think I was bored and somewhat immature. The freedom that farming promised began to seem very alluring and so I dropped the bombshell on my parents and told them I was coming home to be a farmer!
My parents were very good about it and within a couple of years had generously handed over control of the farm to me. I got stuck in with vigour and enthusiasm, rented land, bought milk quota, bought land and so on. But the world didn’t seem to be moving fast enough.
I took a variety of off-farm jobs, working with Golden Vale Marts, Farm Relief Services and then moving into sales, culminating with me starting a book distribution business and then a franchised cleaning business. I loved the idea of farming but I didn’t love routine work. My mind was always elsewhere in those days.
In the late 1990s I undertook a degree in Environmental Science with the Open University and the challenge gave me huge mental satisfaction. Through those studies, I built a strong interest in the environmental constraints and opportunities in farming.
In 2003 I was awarded a Nuffield Farming Scholarship to study the biofuels industry in North America and shortly afterwards I hooked up with a Limerick based investment company as Project Director to build a large-scale biodiesel plant.
No longer did I want to carry the responsibility of running a 70 cow dairy farm. I was too busy to do everything! So I sold the dairy cows, put beef and miscanthus (energy crop) enterprises on the home farm and invested the proceeds from the sale of milk quota in forestry land.
At this stage, I had completed an MBA and a degree in finance. But by 2006 the biodiesel project had collapsed and I found myself working as a sales representative for specialised e-learning services to the international pharmaceutical sector.
It was a million miles from farming and I felt the distance. Around this time, I got the call to resolve problems at a struggling plastics recycling business. I took the offer because I felt it brought me closer to farming.
Unfortunately once the problems were resolved there wasn’t much of a recycling business left and I was on my ass again! On a drizzly November evening in 2009, I met a couple of farm vets concerned about how the role of the vet was constantly being eroded.
The vet was becoming the person of last resort to call to a sick animal or a difficult calving. We identified a challenge for vets in communicating the value they offer. As a result of our conversation we put a plan in place to launch XLVets, the farm veterinary network which now has 25 member practices from around Ireland.
In conjunction with launching XLVets, I worked as a policy consultant to the Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers Association and subsequently I secured funding for XLVets Skillnet which provides training services to the farming and veterinary sectors. XLVets Skillnet was recognised as Ireland’s best Learning & Development network by the Irish Institute of Training & Development in 2016.
In 2016, I co-founded Co-Farm with Wicklow vet Tommy Heffernan. Co-Farm seeks to bring the very best and most effective learning technologies to farming. It remains a work in progress; but I fully believe it will create value for the farming sector and new opportunities will emerge from it.
Last week I was honoured to be appointed the Chairman of Nuffield Ireland for a 3 year term. I am conscious of the fantastic achievement of the outgoing chairman Bill O’Keeffe of Conna in leading Nuffield to such a high level of rigour and professionalism in the delivery of its leadership development programs.
I remain hugely grateful for my Nuffield award in 2003. While I can only make sense of things when looking backwards, I can see how a Nuffield scholarship was the perfect outlet for me to explore new ideas.
It gave me the inspiration to stay engaged with farming as my career grew more diverse and to appreciate the value that farming creates in the fullest sense – not just in terms of food production, but socially, culturally and environmentally too. In effect, Nuffield has enabled me to pursue my mission of making farming better.
We will be recruiting 2018 Nuffield scholars this June, so please keep an eye out for the call for applications. It might be something that you want to do. Or you might know someone that is ready for the Nuffield experience. If so, encourage them to apply.
Of course, Nuffield could not do its work without the support of our sponsors. We are hugely grateful for their continued investment in building human capital in farming.
Written by Geoff Dooley, Chairman of Nuffield Ireland, and co-founder of Co-Farm