Couple’s retreat

I’d heard that farmers are notoriously difficult to get away on holiday. And perhaps it’s not surprising. When your life —not just your job— revolves around tending to living, breathing creatures, then stepping away and handing over the reins to someone else, if only for a few days, is, I imagine, something akin to a new parent leaving their baby for the first time. 

However, after months of hard work, everyone deserves a holiday, and fortunately for me, Jack shares that mentality. That’s why he and I have just returned from a lovely little break in Spain. It was our first real sun holiday together, and one that I’d consider to have been a success. I say this with pride and relief in equal measure, because, as I have gleaned from past experience, planning and orchestrating a holiday with a farmer is tricker than you might think. 

It was back in April 2015 that we set off on our first trip abroad — a city break in Barcelona. We’d booked it just before Jack left the bank to enter into farming full-time, and, eager to take advantage of his becoming his own boss, we threw caution to the wind and booked a Saturday — Tuesday trip. “No Sunday night fear for us that weekend,” we thought, smugly.

We had a great time taking in the sights, sounds and flavours of the beautiful Spanish city. However, and he would be the first to admit this, Jack’s mind was elsewhere for much of the trip. This became apparent to me when his sister phoned to share the news that she and her now-husband had just gotten engaged. 

Imagine! There we were, getting this wonderful news from home while in a hotel nestled amidst the ancient streets of beautiful Barcelona. The romance of it all! My first clue that Jack mightn’t quite have kicked into full-on holiday mode came during that same call when, over my whispered pleas for details on the proposal and the ring, he instead said to his sister, “and tell me: any new calves?” 

That’s right. In the midst of our excitement at booking, we had failed to realise that our long weekend in April would fall smack bang in the middle of the busiest time on the farm. And, as we soon found out, cattle don’t subscribe to company calendars or “out of office” email reminders. 

We headed off down the runway with Jack leaving behind five calves born in the days leading up to our departure. Another two arrived while we were away, with three more following soon after our return. 

So, his distraction was well-justified. After all, he was only in the first few months of life as a full-time farmer, and, with the assurance of a regular income now gone, his livestock was his livelihood. Ensuring the safe arrival of each new life on the farm, and looking out for the young creatures’ well-being during those all-important, first few days, was very much a priority. 

While Jack knew that the farm was in the capable hands of his father, I realised that when it came to his own peace of mind, there could be no substitute for him being there and keeping an eye on things himself. Arriving home to learn that one new calf had succumbed to illness only cemented that thinking, and while neither of us said it aloud, at some point during or after those few days in Barcelona, we both acknowledged that in future, holidays in February through May were firmly off the table. 

This time around, then, we exercised more caution, and held off on booking anything until the majority of the beasties were born. But, as I’ve come to learn, a farmer’s work is never done. 

The day before we left, as I finished up in Dublin and skipped happily out of the office, Jack was picking and ferrying lambs to the factory. Our flight was early the following morning and his tasks kept him out at the farm until late. With laundry still to be done, youth on our side (relatively speaking), and my Granny’s mantra of “you can sleep when you’re dead” echoing in my mind, we brewed some coffee, loaded up the washing machine, and steeled ourselves against the lure of the land of nod. Not that we minded: we would have ample chance to catch up on rest with lazy days on the beautiful beach at Fuengirola. It was there, incidentally and with much envy, that I realised an unexpected advantage of being a full-time farmer taking holidays in June: that all-important base tan —albeit of a farmer’s variety— has already been perfected. I, on the other had, braced myself to do battle with the two scourges of every Irish woman’s summer holiday — strap marks and Sunshimmer.

Despite the advances in AgTech, I don’t imagine there will ever come time when those busy and all-important months on the farm will successfully play out without direct involvement from the farmer themselves. Lambing from Las Vegas, or calving from the Costa? I just can’t see it happening. But everyone needs a break, and for now, Jack and I have found a recipe that works. That we survived our first couples’ sun holiday without a single row is surely testament to that. 

For more on “holidaying with a farmer,” click here to listen back to my recent piece for RTÉ Radio 1’s Countrywide programme.

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