There are few greater pleasures than to walk aimlessly over farmland on a hot June day. This is especially so when the land is not yours and you have no care in the world but to feel the warmth of the sun on your body and to enjoy the riches of nature that surround you. Such pleasure is heightened if you are a city dweller. All pleasures are contrasts, and the contrast between the quiet of the country and the noise of the city is one of the most pleasurable. Even the most dedicated urban dweller could hardly fail to choose the song of the birds and the fragrance of the honeysuckle over the noise of traffic and the smell of its fumes? Perhaps it is also the case that the country ambience stirs something deep in us and brings us back unconsciously to an earlier stage of our evolutionary selves.
You may walk around the headlands of a field of young corn, across a pasture of grazing cattle or perhaps you cross a meadow just before or just after a first cut of silage. But it is the hedgerows, that Irish farmers call the ditch, that provide the variety and interest that draw us into the world of nature which when it is at its best sports the fresh green growth of early summer. The thorn, already a mass of white bloom, honeysuckle, early ash and sycamore and even the shiny fresh growth of the invasive elder all have a beauty of their own. Lower down on the ditch are nettle, thistle, dock and you may see, herb Robert, vetch, primrose and many more you cannot name, not all yet in bloom, and if you’re lucky a cowslip or two. You may hear the song of the thrush or blackbird and perhaps, in the distance, the murderous cuckoo. If you know birdsong you will hear many more.
It is a mistake easily made to believe that the farmer, who lives his life close to these plants and birds is familiar with them. Most farmers will know less about the hedgerows and bird life than the average city dweller who has little more than a passing interest. The farmer will be aware of thistle, dock and ragwort because he knows that, despite the unlikelihood of a prosecution, it is illegal to have them growing on his land. He will most likely call a kestrel a hawk and rooks he will call crows. He will however know those plants and birds that can be detrimental to his livelihood. He will know that dead ragwort is poisonous to his cattle or that a flock of bullfinch can strip large areas of grain in a field of corn.
There is, perhaps understandably, amongst city and town dwellers an abysmal ignorance of the farmer’s way of life. One year when troops of farmers came to Dublin on foot and in tractors to demonstrate outside the Department of Agriculture, disrupting city traffic, people stopped on the footpath in wonder at these rugged and bronzed people of whose way of life they knew little.
The first thing that can be said of farming is that it is not a job but a way of life, and to live it the farmer must work all-the-hours-that-God-gives; seven days a week and 52 weeks of the year. It can be hard physical work, less so nowadays since hydraulics took much of the hardest work out of farming. It is not uncommon to hear older farmers complaining that their sons won’t do physical work but will do only as much as they can manage sitting in the cab of a tractor, with heating or air conditioning and stereo radio.
The second thing that the urban dweller may not appreciate is how much farmers are dependent on the weather. The tillage farmer is particularly susceptible. A wet spring can make tilling and sowing late, and a long dry spell after sowing may inhibit germination and slow down early growth. A long spell of wind and rain during the summer can cause corn to lodge and make harvesting difficult. A harvest delayed by persistent rain can cause corn to shoot, making it unsuitable for malting or milling. Rain and cold at lambing time can be a threat to lambs even greater than that of the fox. For the farmer all of these problems caused by bad weather can reduce his income, while in the foulest weather a city dweller can get to his place of business without threat to his pay packet.
A farmer will never admit to making money. After Ireland joined the European Economic Community in the seventies, grants were landing through farmers’ letterboxes like confetti. Any suggestion at this time to a farmer that he must be making great money, was most likely to meet with a blank denial. At best he might admit that things weren’t as bad as they used to be.
In the past, but not so much these days, farmers’ sons endured school only as long as necessary. Knowing that they would be going home to farm they did only the bare minimum of work to keep out of trouble and left school at the first opportunity. Some of them were barely literate. Farmers’ daughters, on the other hand, knowing that the farm held nothing for them, stayed on in school, did their Leaving Certificate and went on to qualify as teachers, nurses, in other professions or they did a secretarial course. This brought them away from home to towns and cities and broader life experience. Many of these women then married young men who had left school at sixteen and stayed at home on the farm. The women wrote the cheques in a fluent hand and the husbands signed them with a laborious signature. These women fall into two categories; those who involve themselves in the farm almost as much as their husbands, and some are as good or even better farmers than them, and those who have absolutely nothing to do with the farm other than to pass on the odd ‘phone call and some of them don’t even possess a pair of wellington boots.