Kieran Sullivan farms 30ac in Co Waterford, is a part-time information communication technology (ICT) researcher at Waterford Institute of Technology (WIT) and is father to three young kids. In a world of non-farmers struggling to find a work-life balance, how does he manage with farming in the mix?

“It’s tough enough to balance it all,” he laughs. “The hardest thing in the world seems to be to figure out what’s there in front of you and what can be done the most easily.”

Work with the infrastructure you have

Kieran is specifically talking about his farm and the changes he has made to bring more balance to his life.

His father died suddenly in 2001 when Kieran was 24. He attempted to keep the farm going (at the time the main enterprise was dairy, with beef, some tillage and sheep) but within a year decided to sell their stock and lease the land. He spent time abroad and then started working with Waterford Institute of Technology (WIT) on a full-time basis in 2008.

“Five or six years ago, my brother and I said we’d take back a few acres,” he explains. “We bought a few lambs and it’s grown from there. In 2019, we took back a few more acres. We’re at 30ac now, so it’s all still done on a small scale.”

When they started farming again, Kieran went from five days a week at WIT to four. Then, when they took on the extra land in 2019, he went from four to three days per week. Even after cutting back his working hours, though, he felt farming sheep was becoming increasingly time consuming. His farm, originally suited and set up for dairying, is better, he feels, for cattle.

“I’m getting rid of the sheep as they were taking up too much time, especially pre-lambing,” he says. “I’ll buy store lambs, instead, to keep the mixed grazing approach going, but I doubt I’ll lamb ewes here again in the spring.

“Instead, I’m going to focus on calves and bringing them through to sell at 18-19 months, either finished or as stores,” he continues. “Our place was a dairy farm, previously, and is well set up for cattle and calves. It’s not set up for sheep and it only took me five years to realise this!”

Kieran maintains that, to manage his life properly, he needs to be able to put the animals in a field, go to the office, come back and see they’re still in the same field where he left them.

“You don’t need to be getting calls throughout the day when you’re at work,” he says.

Money v happiness

Though Kieran admits that the most financially feasible thing for him to do would be to lease his land and work at WIT full time, he acknowledges that farming has made him happier in the long run.

“I went from working full time to three days a week,” he laughs. “It’s kind of an opposite reality to most farmers, who have to go off-farm to add to their income – here I am, trying to cut back the hours to be able to farm.

“Being chained to the desk, Monday to Friday from nine to five wasn’t much fun,” he continues. “But I had more money than we have now. At the same time, I’d like to think I’m not as stressed or grouchy.”

Living a double life

Many farmers with off-farm jobs feel as though they need to downplay their farming job, or keep it a secret entirely, from co-workers and employers.

Kieran says, with employers being increasingly flexible, communication (and being as honest about farming as you can) also has potential benefits.

“I think the biggest problems in the world come from a lack of communication,” he says. “In general, I would say be transparent, but it depends on where you’re working. A lot of the time, you can second guess the reaction without having to say it out loud.

“Talking about farming at work is often downsized because being realistic about how work-heavy a farm is could create suspicion,” he continues. “I work in the public sector; there’s 1,000 people working here. That’s different to someone working in the local co-op or feed merchant; there will be a different dynamic in these workplaces. If you can be as honest as possible, that’s always the best policy. Farming part time on the QT is always going to be hard for people.”

Essential work and essential needs

With COVID-19, the public acknowledgement of farmers being essential workers may work in the favour of those struggling to maintain a work-life-farm balance. Kieran thinks opening up a national conversation on the realities of farming, while being dependent on subsidies and off-farm employment, would benefit many in this regard. As human resources expand to start offering leave for a more diverse range of employee needs, perhaps in the future there will also be leave for essential farming periods.

“With the CAP conversation surrounding what a ‘genuine farmer’ is, this is definitely a complicated discussion to start,” he says. “But it’s an important one, too.”