Testing times

Jack was just three months into the world of full-time farming when he got word.

His subsequent text to me was short and to the point: “Calves got BVD.”

As I mentioned in “The Backstory,” year one with a full-time farmer has been, first and foremost, an education:

  • I’ve added the likes of “beastins” and “scour,” to my vocabulary.
  • I’ve learned that it’s a rookie mistake —one that’s highly insulting to the male of the species— to talk about “cows,” when the correct, more inclusive term is “cattle.”
  • I can even identify the odd breed or two in a field.

Not too shabby for a townie from County Derry.

But this news came early into our journey together, and while the glossary of farming terms I’d begun to gather was not insignificant, “BVD” was a new one on me.

Full disclosure: I wondered if it might just be a typo.

There was a tone to the text, however, that gave me reason to pause. I suspected that this latest development mightn’t be good, and a quick Google search confirmed my suspicions.

Jack had mentioned that he would call, and when he did, I wanted to be able to talk to him about it – to ask the right questions and maybe offer some reassurance.

That’s how, on a Wednesday evening in Rathgar, I found myself settling into an hour’s research on the topic of Bovine Viral Diarrhoea. I’ll spare you the details, but suffice it to say, this wasn’t a dose that could be cured with dry toast and flat 7up.

It was far more serious, altogether.

Five calves in total had tested positive for the highly contagious disease, Jack told me later, and while there were followup tests scheduled for three weeks’ time, he was fairly sure that all five would be PI status (“Persistently Infected”), which would ultimately lead to them having to be destroyed.

I tried to find a silver lining. During my research, I’d discovered that as a means of encouraging and assisting the speedy disposal of PI calves so as to halt the spread of the disease, the Irish Department of Agriculture would issue a payment of €140 for each diseased animal that is shown to be disposed of within five weeks of the first test.

However, this offered little consolation to a farmer who’d been banking on selling each of those calves for four times that amount further down the line.

A BVD diagnosis is a bitter pill for any farmer to swallow. That it should happen to a young farmer who, with less than six months of full-time farming behind him, was still finding his feet, only made it worse.

I told him that he was being tested. I told him that it was rotten luck and no reflection on his abilities as a farmer. I told him that I was sorry he’d been dealt that blow. And I told him that, of course, I’d make the short trip out from Dublin to Kildare that following evening after work to see him.

We stood in the kitchen that Thursday, chatting while putting together some dinner. As I chopped the chicken and sliced the peppers, he explained to me what was involved in re-testing the calves.

He asked then, how my day had been. I almost felt bad, telling him it was grand. The fact that my lunch had been a disappointment due to the sandwich place having forgotten to put the avocado in my wrap didn’t seem worth mentioning.

Later that night, he thanked me for listening. I realised then that when he shared these things with me, he wasn’t looking for me to fix it. He didn’t expect me to have the words that would make it all better. He just wanted to talk it out with someone who would listen.

That much, I could do.

Before meeting Jack, I was mostly oblivious to farming life. In the time I’ve known him, I’ve come to appreciate not only the rewards farming offers, but the sacrifices it requires of those who live it. Long working hours, often spent in relative isolation, are par for the course. So, too, are financial pressures, and the associated stress.

It’s a lot for anyone to contend with.

For my part, I often find myself wishing I could do more to help. It’s not easy, watching someone you care about deal with the oftentimes difficult and unfair realities of what is a way of life rather than simply a job. And yet, as I think back on that conversation we had in the kitchen and the gratitude he expressed, it strikes me that perhaps the simple act of listening, of allowing a problem to be shared, shouldn’t be underestimated.

It won’t solve financial struggles, or stop animals from getting sick. It won’t prevent family quarrels, stave off a harsh winter, or protect him or any farmer from the challenges that will inevitably come their way. But it will go some way to alleviating the pressure and reducing the stress that can otherwise become too much for one person to handle.

And in an industry that’s particularly vulnerable to mental health issues, I realise now that every conversation counts.

It’s good to talk.

A version of this post was previously published in the Irish Farmers Journal / Irish Country Living magazine.

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