We all love a good story and John McHugh’s farming journey has all the elements of a great one: a strong storyline, unexpected twists – and a compelling central character.

John started farming in 2001, aged 21, following the untimely death of his father, PJ. Having recently graduated from Ag Science in UCD, John set about building on his father’s legacy, a profitable 230-acre mixed farm with dairy (34 cows), beef, sheep, sugar beet and cereals. Ambitious and hard-working, John began to simplify and specialize the farm system: sheep were the first to go, then beef and tillage, as dairying became the primary focus.

He joined a local dairy discussion group, gradually upgraded his infrastructure and expanded his herd – purchasing quotas and paying superlevies to do so. By 2015, things were looking rosy: milk quotas were ending and John was well-positioned to capitalize – by then he was milking 160 cows in a 16-unit parlour, had been selected as a Teagasc-Glanbia Monitor farm and was really enjoying the journey.

A niggling feeling

But something felt wrong: John recalls “a niggling feeling” that “all wasn’t well with the world”. Specifically, he felt his farming system was losing resilience – increasingly dependent on banks, bought-in fertilisers and feed, contractors, and global commodity markets. “Just for the fun of it”, John began tinkering with a six-year farm planner to do the math on downsizing to an organic system. The figures were surprising – and reassuring, as they didn’t require taking on additional debt to further upgrade facilities.

Around this time, John and his wife Katie welcomed their son Paddy – followed later by daughters Esme and Martha. This set him thinking about food nutrition, work-life balance and his longer-term legacy. He was influenced by his late father who, as a progressive farmer in the 1980s, reclaimed much of the farm but later began planting copses of trees – which today stand as a living legacy of a much-loved parent and husband.

John McHugh has been managing the 230-acre family farm since 2001. Initially a mixed farm, John specialised in dairying, building a 160-cow herd before transitioning, in 2015, to what he feels is a more resilient, low-cost farming system.

John soon became consumed by the challenge of the organic transition and read voraciously on the subject – Newman Turner and Albert Howard among his influences. He met various people and tried new ideas, all of which “helped take away the fear of the unknown”. Long story short: John went organic in 2016, breaking the surprise news to his discussion group and monitor farm peers shortly after, and today he milks 60 Irish Moiled-cross cows, is debt-free, loves what he does and has zero regrets or ‘what might have beens’.

Land sharing

The dairy herd are in supreme condition: 100% grass-fed, they are milked twice daily, supplying Glenisk year-round. John practices a ‘short grass’ (or ‘continuous’) grazing system: the cows are moved to fresh pastures every 12 hours and the whole farm is grazed quite evenly. This leads to shorter, denser grass-and-clover-rich swards, kept in a constant growing phase, which John feels improves the quality of the forage, and the milk.

Located near Portlaoise, the farm is a natural oasis. Generous hedgerows – with ash, whitethorn and spindle – flank species-rich pastures. ‘Hare’s Corners’ contain butterfly-laden wildflowers or trees. Farm roadways are flanked by fruit trees – plum, cherry and apple – with a sequoia planted for each of the children. John is generous in sharing his space with nature – but the sharing doesn’t end there.

The centrepiece of the farm is a cartwheel-shaped growing area where John makes space available to the community to grow their own food and share excess produce. This remarkable act of generosity – including free water and compost! – was taken up by a wide variety of (currently 14) locals who grow an extraordinary range of beautifully-managed fruit and vegetables. This ‘Clondarrig community farm project’ continues to thrive – meeting John’s aspiration of self-sufficiency for his community.

John, his wife, Katie, and children, Paddy, Esme (pictured here), and Martha, share their farm with the local community through the Clondarrig Community farm, where 14 local families today grow their own food.

Building resilience

John loves his farming, and is firm in his conviction that this system works for him, his family, his community and for nature. He uses terms like “really relaxed” to describe the pace of his farm work and “very comfortable” to describe his farm profitability. He respects that others may have different ideas and feels that there is room – and need – for all sorts. John feels his farm is now more resilient (eg, minimal outgoings, ample slurry storage to cater for inclement weather, easier to get relief milkers). Critically, he feels he has more control over, and confidence in, his farming future.

Recounting John’s story, one is reminded of Robert Frost’s poem ‘The Road Not Taken’:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I took the one less travelled by, and that has made all the difference.

John’s journey as a farmer – now joined by his young family – is unique and inspirational. It is a journey which will continue to unfold, guided by John’s courage and generosity. It’s clear that he has, in his farming lifetime thus far, really “made all the difference”.

Top tips>/ch>

A ‘Hare’s Corner’ is an old farming expression for an awkward section of ground – a slope, wet spot or field corner – which was difficult to ‘get at’ and so was ‘left for nature’.

You can create your own Hare’s Corner by simply fencing off a species-rich area from May to July (so plants can flower and seed unhindered) or by planting a few suitable trees or by digging out a wildlife pond. These simple actions can make a real difference for nature, help your farm adapt to a changing climate by providing water storage (ponds), shelter and shade (trees), and contribute positively to your own wellbeing as a farmer!

Learn more

A critical point in John’s farm journey was the use of a farm planner. There are lots of such planners freely available online or in hardcopy, for example Teagasc’s workbook ‘My Farm, My Plan – Planning for my Future’.

While there are many things beyond a farmer’s control, these planners can be useful tools in prompting you to consider key questions: ‘Where am I at now?’ and ‘Where do I want to be in 10 years – and why?’, then working out a financial plan and a realistic step-by-step plan of action to get there. Meeting other farmers who are already ‘further down the road’ can also help to allay fears and gain practical feedback.