Having to deal with health issues and grief at a young age can be a challenge, but for Aoife Feeney it didn’t stop her from carving out an admirable career in the Agri-Food industry.

Growing up outside of Longford town, with no farming background, Aoife went on to complete a Bachelor’s Degree and Masters in Agricultural Science from University College Dublin (UCD). Her most recent achievement has been completing a Nuffield Scholarship on; ‘Identifying key methods to influence behaviour change at farm level to improve water quality’.

Aoife Feeney pictured with her parents Alec (her late Father) and Kathleen Feeney.

Changing pathways

For as long as she can remember, any time Aoife was asked what she wanted to be when she grew up, she would always reply with, “I am going to be a vet.”

Spending time on her grandparents’ suckler farm in Co Roscommon, Aoife developed a love for animals. “I spent all my summers up there with my grandparents,” she recalls.

Being diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis at the age of three didn’t impact Aoife until she was 16 when she came out of remission, resulting in bad fatigue and having to miss a lot of school.

During an appointment, a consultant asked Aoife what she wanted to do in college and she immediately replied veterinary medicine. Aoife’s parents both looked at her, not realising it was still on the cards.

After a few bad flare-ups, Aoife decided not to put herself under too much pressure during her Leaving Certificate exams. Leaving veterinary medicine as her first choice on the CAO application, she put Animal Science, in UCD, as her second choice.

However, as ag science wasn’t offered as a subject in her school, Aoife hadn’t studied it. So the Christmas before her mock exams, she rang her neighbour who was an ag science teacher to see if she could do it externally.

After just a few months, Aoife obtained a C in the mock exam, saying that having a good grasp of biology helped.

Crash course in ag science

“I don’t know how but I came out of the Leaving Certificate with an A2 in agriculture science,” she says.

Moving to UCD and starting a BSc in Animal Science, Aoife says she was ‘shy and timid’ but is a completely different person now.

Although Aoife enjoyed her time in UCD, it did have its challenges, including the passing of two friends.

At the time, she didn’t realise how much it was affecting her.“It had a big impact on me and my results,” she says.

Having to repeat a few exams in her final year didn’t affect Aoife’s career as she had a job secured with the Farm Relief Services (FRS), once she passed. As part of her role, she moved to Clonakilty, Co Cork where her core focus was working with dairy farmers in Teagasc on the nitrates derogation.

Aoife Feeney with Canadian Nuffield Scholars in Prince Edward Island.

Learning as you go

“The first month was a challenge. I was definitely on the backfoot because I didn’t come from a farm. I also didn’t know the practicalities of fertiliser application but I wanted to learn as much as I could. The farmers were so helpful, they taught me more than anything I would learn in a book,” she says.

Staying with FRS for two and a half years, Aoife was offered a team leader position in Cork, covering seven Teagasc offices.

“It was brilliant for me. I suppose, I felt I had done badly in college and I put myself down a bit so this was a huge boost in my career,” she says.

Aoife started a new role in June 2018, working for Carbery as a programme manager of the Agricultural Sustainability Support and Advisory Programme (ASSAP). After 12 months, she took on the role of Farm Sustainability Manager working with milk suppliers all around West Cork to promote the best practice in sustainable dairy farming.

The main issue there was nitrate leaching. “It’s a free-draining sandy soil catchment. It was easier to put in mitigation actions for phosphorus losses than it was for nitrogen. It’s still really hard to get that adoption and change as farmers have a lot to contend with. It’s really about nutrient use efficiency and trying to reduce our reliance on nitrogen,” says Aoife.

Agricultural policy officer

In April 2022, Aoife took on a new role as the Agriculture Policy Officer for the Embassy of the Kingdom of Netherlands in Ireland. This is part of the Netherlands agriculture network around the world where they have agricultural attachés and advisors in 48 Dutch embassies and consulates supporting over 75 countries. The role has given Aoife broad exposure to all sectors across the agriculture and food industries in Ireland and the Netherlands.

“My role is mostly about analysing all of the European policies that both countries have to adhere to, where the action plans might be different. Every year, I look at the Irish climate action plan and compare it to the Dutch climate action plan and share the learnings across both,” explains Aoife.

Nuffield scholarship

Sadly, Aoife’s father passed away in 2020, after being sick for 12 months. Looking for a new challenge, the opportunity to undertake a Nuffield Scholarship arose.

“After Dad being sick, I needed something to focus on,” says Aoife.

After a tough interview process, Aoife was successfully awarded a Nuffield scholarship in 2022.

It gave her the oppurtunity to take two months’ leave from work and travel the world to New Zealand, Indonesia, Japan and Australia, from March to May this year.

“By far the highlight was getting to travel to these places. In Indonesia, to see beef and palm sugar farmers and in Japan, where it’s super clean and everything is hygienic and efficient,” says Aoife.

Key research findings

Aoife will be presenting her main research findings at this week’s annual Nuffield conference. These include:

• Every farmer taking one action is better than one farmer taking ten actions for water quality.

The Taranaki Catchment Community in New Zealand has a similar programme to the ASSAP programme, but one key difference is it is farmer-led.

• Banana farms in Australia that are using huge amounts of nitrogen are working with the Great Barrier Reef preservation group to save the reef from nutrient pollution. The principles are the same for grass-led dairy farming. Reducing nitrogen leaching improves water quality.

• Policy changes so fast, but stricter targets and being part of the EU aren’t a bad thing as we have shared water quality objectives. Cooperation across so many countries is a huge benefit.

• Funding from industry and government will be really important for improving water quality. Although the ASSAP programme has received EIP funding, a more permanent programme in place is necessary.

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