Taking stock: A new breed of young farmer

Roberta Simmons  reading a copy of Farming Life. Photo Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker Press
Roberta Simmons reading a copy of Farming Life. Photo Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker Press

‘‘I haven’t time to be married,’’ laughs Roberta Simmons when asked if there is a ‘Mr Simmons’.

And when the 33-year-old gives a synopsis of her hectic schedule, it seems she may not be exaggerating, for not only does this champion multi-tasker work full-time as a legal secretary, she is also a hands-on partner in the family’s small beef farm outside Banbridge, and, for the last couple of years has been at the helm of the Young Farmers’ Clubs of Ulster (YFCU) as its president.

The presidency is a voluntary role - and an extremely busy one.

‘‘There’s lots going on. I would be out of the house most nights,’’ says Roberta.

She’s worked at the same law firm for 16 years and is thankful for the forbearance of her employer.

‘‘My boss has been extremely lenient over the last two years to let me have time out to go to things (as YFCU president).’’

The Young Farmers’ Clubs of Ulster was established in 1929 in Limavady. It is the largest rural youth organisation in Northern Ireland, with more than 50 clubs dotted across the six counties and a membership in excess of 3,000. The ratio of men to women is roughly 50:50.

Roberta says: ‘‘At the start the organisation would have been very male-dominated. I am the fifth female president in 86 years, so there hasn’t been too many women that have taken on that role, but it is changing and there are a lot more ladies that would take on roles within the clubs and hold it together. Women are good at that.’’

YFCU members are aged 12 to 30; but, importantly, you don’t have to be a farmer to join.

‘‘You just have to an interest in rural life,’’ says Roberta, who joined herself when she was 16 and has held various roles from secretary to club leader, public relations officer to vice president.

Members pay a modest yearly fee of between £16 and £30, dependent on your age.

‘‘It’s also unique in that it’s run for the members, and is led by the members. Down through the years we have done a fantastic job of building on things that are for the betterment of young people in rural life, by way of educational activities and life skills,’’ she says.

YFCU is a multifaceted organisation with a range of activities and competitions, which happen, it seems, on a daily basis - and it is Roberta’s job is to get round as many as she can.

‘‘We have 28 competitions, ranging from public speaking to group debating to stock judging.’’

And there are also plenty of events where a fancy frock is required, such as attending a club’s anniversary, or the recent Farming Life Danske Bank Awards.

‘‘I do love the wellies and getting out on the farm and mucking in, but it’s equally quite nice sometimes to get the dress on and get the hair done and get a wee bit of make-up on. I have an extensive wardrobe of dresses now - which I probably never would have had,’’ she laughs.

Of course, as well as being out and about as the public face of the YFCU, there’s a lot of work that goes on quietly behind the scenes,

‘‘With being president you sit as a member of the board of directors, you’re a trustee of the organisation and you are lead line manager for the ceo (chief executive officer).’’

She adds: ‘‘We do try to push the educational side; a lot of young people that join us are overwhelmed because they didn’t know we did so many things.’’

Of course, there is also the dynamic social side of YFCU. Clubs meet up once or twice a week; a small number of clubs are lucky enough to have their own club halls, but those that don’t tend to meet in community or church halls.

The organisation has farm safety mentors and is also pro-active in tackling the loneliness some may experience from rural life and issues around mental health.

‘‘If you are farming at home you maybe don’t see someone from one day to the next, so the organisation is fantastic in bringing young people together so that they do have something to go to,’’ says Roberta.

The YFCU works in conjunction with Calor to roll out the ‘Know your Neighbour’ campaign, the aim of which is to encourage people to get to know their neighbour and help build a more inclusive and happier society.

‘‘It’s all about going out into communities and tackling rural isolation,’’ explains Robert, ‘‘maybe going to see that old neighbour down the road that hasn’t anybody.

‘‘Some of the clubs have had community picnics and we are currently doing a toy appeal for Christmas because there are people out there who maybe aren’t as well off or can’t afford things for their children.’’

The clubs organise a lot of charity fundraisers, as well as discos and other events, but occasionally YFCU can have a reputation for ‘socialising’ a bit too much.

Roberta concedes this can be a problem, but adds: ‘‘There are people who go to events who are not paid up members of Young Farmers Clubs of Ulster and so it maybe takes just that one person who isn’t a member to tarnish the name.’’

However, if, as the old song goes, the farmer wants a wife, YFCU can be a great place to meet a potential romantic partner.

‘‘People have said, and I suppose it is true, that a lot of members down through the years have met one another through it - so there’s that love story side too,’’ acknowledges Roberta.

Farmers do tend to marry farmers, and whilst she is coy about her own preferences, Roberta does reveal she couldn’t marry a ‘townie’.

‘‘I just don’t’ think that would work.

‘‘I don’t think I could live in the town, I’ve always lived in the country, it’s just a lovely place to live .’’

Whilst the Young Farmers’ Clubs of Ulster isn’t a political organisation, it has delved into issues that are important to young people.

‘‘We want to give them a voice in the agricultural industry,’’says Roberta.

‘‘My predecessor Martin Blair was very active in the CAP reform negotiations. At the minute we are looking at Brexit.’’

She also feels YFCU should have a bigger influence around the shaping of agri-food policy given that members are going to be the farmers of future.

‘‘I feel it’s important that young farmers are consulted for their opinion and they have their say on what they would like to see going forward.

‘‘It’s very much something within our organisation that we would encourage.

‘‘We have a very strong rural and agri-affairs committee. Over the last number of years the Department have actually sought our opinions on different things.’’

At the moment, many might view farming as the ultimate closed shop, because it takes a very long time and a great deal of money to set up as a farmer – buy the land, the stock, invest in the machinery, build up the herd, deal with disease - it suits a family succession. It’s an issue YFCU are looking closely at - and may have a solution.

‘‘The major thing in Northern Ireland has always been succession, but something we are working closely with the Farmer’s Union on is a land mobility scheme - shared farming, partnership, and leasing.

‘‘If you are coming out of college and you don’t have a farm, and, for example, your neighbour down the road wants to step back a bit and there’s no successor coming behind him, hopefully we’d be able to pair them up. It gives the young person the chance to get into the industry.’’

But even though a young person may achieve their dream of becoming a farmer, it may not make them rich.

‘‘It’s not the job that will make you a millionaire but then you also have to realise that if you don’t have farmers, you don’t have food,’’ says Roberta.

‘‘I couldn’t afford to farm full-time,’’ she says candidly.

‘‘I farm with my brother-in-law and my mum and dad and there wouldn’t be enough to keep one of us, let alone four of us.’’

She adds: ‘‘It’s a lovely way of life, but of course I know people have to have some sort of an income from it as well. Hopefully we are seeing a bit of light at the end of the tunnel over the last number of weeks, with not only the price of beef, but lamb, and milk prices coming up slightly. It is ‘positive-ish’ compared to what it has been. Hopefully the darkest of the days have gone.’’

And on plans for a four-day Balmoral (instead of three) next year, she is unequivocal.

‘‘I think it’s fantastic. It’s the biggest show in Northern Ireland to showcase the agricultural industry - it has grown over the last number of years and the new venue means that it has been able to grow even more.’’

Roberta’s presidency finishes in April and she’ll sit on the executive board of directors for a further two years as immediate past president.

Reflecting on her tenure to date, she says: ‘‘It’s been an am absolutely fantastic experience.’’

‘‘I’ve met a lot of people that I never would have got to meet within the agricultural industry and beyond.’’

She’s travelled throughout Europe and gained a wealth of new skills, but just as important, she says are ‘‘the friendships and fun.’’