“I went to boarding school in Alexandra College in Dublin, so pigs may not have been the expected career choice!” says Fiona O’ Meara from Mallow, Co. Cork.
The family ran a tillage enterprise – on the holding which was purchased by Fiona’s grandfather - until focusing solely on their equestrian business.
Following her sister’s lead, Fiona evented up to International 1* level and has worked as a horse groom for her best friend - Camilla Speir – and Global Event Horses at numerous internationals for Team Ireland; she also has an All-Ireland gold medal in Gymnastics.
Despite her agricultural background, Fiona considered following in her mother’s footsteps by becoming a primary school teacher, but her interests changed after Transition Year.
Fiona had hoped to carve out a career in Physiotherapy, with plans to study Human Physio before venturing to the UK to complete an Equine Physio course.
The Cork native missed her first choice by up to tens CAO points but accepted a place in University College Dublin’s Agricultural Science - Animal and Crop Production degree programme in 2012.
She worked on a local pig farm in 2015 as part of her PWE (Professional Work Experience) module which steered her career in a different direction. “I knew very little about pigs at this stage, apart from what we had covered in college.”
“I’d never set foot on a pig farm and thought I’d do the four-weeks placement and that would be that.” She added.
Fiona finished placement and remained here for two-and-a-half years, working weekends and during holidays.“That farmer is probably the single reason I ended up in pigs. He was so helpful, really wanted me to learn and I have a lot to thank him for.”
In final year, Fiona received an email from John O’ Doherty regarding a PhD on optimising liquid feeding for grow-finisher pigs.
“At the time I hadn’t considered doing a PhD – it was more the topic that grabbed my attention at the time as I had been operating a liquid feeding system on the farm I had worked on.” Explained Fiona who secured the position.
The 25-year-old is based at the Development Department, Animal and Grassland Research and Innovation Centre, Teagasc, Moorepark, Fermoy, Co. Cork since October 2016.
Fiona is researching ‘strategies to improve the microbial quality of liquid feed and optimise growth of liquid-fed grow-finisher pigs’ under the supervision of Peadar Lawlor – Teagasc; Gillian Gardiner – WIT and John O’ Doherty – UCD.She has compared feed form, delivery methods, the use of acids and fermentation to try and optimise liquid feeding for grow-finisher pigs.
“The lab isn’t my favourite place in the world but it is all part of it and has to be done. It was nice to have a variety between the farm, lab and office during my trial work.”
“I have very experienced supervisors and we have had amazing opportunities here including travelling abroad to conferences.”
She advises candidates who are considering a PhD to do a placement in a research centre first: “Placement can help students to make their minds up very quickly if a research career will be for them or not.”
Along with completing a PhD, Fiona runs Clyda Equestrian with her father – a qualified course builder - with assistance sought from the Duloherys atKilguilkey House. They maintain the cross-country course and fences and hold one-day national level Eventing Ireland events; Fiona is responsible for administration, dealing with entries and bookings.
“I think I was naïve about how much I could do - running the business at home and riding and grooming as much along with a PhD but I’m glad that I stuck with it."
Women in Ag
The 25-year-old said she has never had a bad experience being a woman in agriculture. She admitted that the male: female ratio in her year was a lot closer to 50:50 than she would have expected it to be.
“The only thing I’d have ever noticed, for example, would have been a man offering to carry a bag of feed for me or something, but I’d look at that as ‘Thank God, chivalry isn’t dead!’”
“When you’re in a ball dress at an awards ceremony and meet someone who asks what you do and you say ‘pigs’ – it’s not the first answer they’re expecting – even in the equestrian world which isn’t the most glamorous at times either!”
Looking forward, Fiona (25) will finish her PhD in October of this year and hopes to work with farmers, either in an advisory capacity or in a nutritionist role.
Ideally, she would like to combine her passion for pigs and horses, if an opportunity of this nature arose in the future. “I haven’t quite figured out how that would work, but perhaps, in a nutritionist role there would be opportunities to do both.”
“I love the type of people you meet working in agriculture. I have serious admiration for pig farmers, especially at the moment, dealing with challenging prices as they have been doing for some time.”
“I love outdoor life and I suppose having grown up in horses and outside, it feels like the right sector for me,” Fiona concluded.
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