Family farming in a pandemic

Dan Dooner


Mervyn Auchmuty was making use of the good weather this week in Lecarrow. The 40-year-old farmer was preparing machinery ahead of another busy evening in the field when the Roscommon People dropped by in order to get the lie of the land.

“Half of our land here is in grain while the rest is sheep and cattle. We are also contractors ourselves, so at the moment we’re busy with silage,” he said.

In fact it’s through his contracting work that Mervyn has perhaps most noticed the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“One of the biggest changes brought about by the virus is that we weren’t able to go to people’s houses for dinner or for a chat. We are being very careful and continue to take all the necessary precautions. We sanitise our hands getting in and out of the tractor, and practice social distancing. There hasn’t really been a massive change for us in terms of the work we do but the social effects have been noticeable.

“We were in lambing season when the lockdown started in March and so we noticed a change in how things were done when we went to Coffey’s Merchants in Lecarrow or even to the vets or marts. People are now standing outside more and waiting to be seen. Day to day, we practice social distancing like everyone else but you’re pretty isolated anyway when you’re working on the farm. We’ve been lucky that way and it would give you an appreciation for those who have been working on the frontline,” he said.

Mervyn’s wife, Nicola, is employed by SuperValu and is therefore part of the army of essential workers which has kept Ireland moving since March. With schools and childminding facilities closed and with both parents working, there has been added pressure on the Auchmutys.

“That has probably been our biggest challenge so far. Our kids couldn’t go into the childminder and my mother is high risk, so obviously she couldn’t take them or visit. Working on the farm, I’m never too far away and our kids, Abby and Tadhg, have walkie-talkies and the phone so they could keep in contact with their grandmother and with me.

“On the other hand, with the schools closed we had extra help from one of our younger employees who was supposed to be doing his Leaving Certificate. He worked with us full-time but it’s difficult to plan because nobody seems to know when the schools will reopen,” Mervyn said.

Phase Three saw a lifting of some of the earlier restrictions; childminding has resumed and those considered ‘high risk’ are no longer cocooning. Mervyn is happy that things have eased up – but warned against complacency.

“None of us know what will happen in the future but sometimes I think that going back to Phase Two wouldn’t be a bad idea if it helped some people to realise that this virus is real and (that) it’s not going away,” he said.

When it comes to the overall effect on Irish agriculture, Mervyn says the future landscape is an uncertain one.

“At the moment cattle and sheep prices continue to rise. Phase One was very difficult, and with the likes of Supermac’s and McDonald’s closing there was a massive impact on the price of cattle. I don’t really know what will happen in the future but there has been a market in Britain because a lot of their factories were shut down due to Covid,” he said.

Mervyn believes those working in agriculture are taking the threat of Covid-19 seriously and highlights hand sanitisation and the wearing of face masks as crucial precautions in the fight against the virus. He said that those living and working alone were however feeling the effects of social distancing measures.

“I see it with bachelor farmers and other people who are living on their own. Their social life, which would have involved going to Mass, weddings, pubs and visiting places like the post office, has been turned upside down.

“Younger people with families were okay during lockdown but it has taken a toll on the kids. They’ve lost their routine and have become a bit clingy, which is understandable, because they’re seeing all the coverage on the news and listening to people talking about it every day…and they’re scared.

“But we’re very lucky to be living here in County Roscommon. Just imagine how difficult it would have been to practice social distancing or to self-isolate in a big city,” he concluded.