Fiona Hanna decided to have a career break after the birth of her second child, but life never seemed to slow down – not that she’s complaining.

The chartered accountant, who now farms with her husband Shaw on their arable farm in Rathfriland, Co Down, filled the gap by getting involved with a number of Northern Ireland’s agriculture organisations, which was her way of staying “sane”.

Fiona served two consecutive two-year terms on the Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU) board (concluded in April) and held the role of grants coordinator with Rathfriland, Young Farmers Clubs of Ulster (YFCU), until 2015.

At present, she is a non-executive board member of Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI), a member of Northern Ireland Food Advisory Committee and treasurer to the Steering Committee of Bank of Ireland (BOI) Open Farm Weekend – not to mention holding a director’s position on the board of Mourne, Gullion and Lecale Rural Development Partnership.

“I trained (as a chartered accountant) and worked for a firm in Belfast before I decided on a change of plans. I left the daily grind of commuting to Belfast and told people I was taking a career break, but my friends said I never stopped.

“I decided to change path after I had my first baby and then after my second maternity leave I didn’t go back to work in Belfast. Shaw and I are now working together on the farm.

“I have been involved with Rathfriland YFCU since I was 16 – that’s how I met Shaw – and I was involved as grants co-ordinator with the club committee for seven or eight years. So in the midst of being at home, that’s one of the things I was doing to keep myself sane.

“Off the back of that I was asked to take a seat on the UFU board as a co-opted member because of my accountancy background. For me, that was a really big thing because I was at home a lot and the children were very wee.

“It was very interesting, I was able to get out and about and my mum helped me to do that – she took on board the childcare, which I’m very grateful for. When you’re taking on a voluntary role, if you don’t have support that’s relatively inexpensive, you don’t get to do it when you’re not working. Then I applied for a couple of public appointments.”

BOI open farm weekend

With four children who are learning as they grow, Fiona sees them as “their own marketeers for agriculture” because they share their knowledge with friends at school. This inspired her to get involved with BOI Open Farm Weekend, which is a UFU-led initiative.

The event takes place on 15-16 June and the Irish Farmers Journal is one of the sponsors. Open to the general public, with a particular focus on those who are not from farming backgrounds, the aim is to enable them to understand where their food comes from and the importance of farmers in the food chain.

“I got involved in Open Farm Weekend, I do treasurer for the committee. The event is about trying to connect the consumer with where their food comes from.

“It’s a free event and there are approximately 20 farms across Northern Ireland with a good geographical spilt. We have everything from apple farms to beef farms.

“Our target is families who don’t know about farming. It’s for those who are one, two or more generations away from farming and aren’t aware of where their food comes from.

“You get visitors who spend their entire day going to two or three different farms. We get great feedback and that’s what drives me to do it every year. I am really passionate about it.”

Farm life

Life on the farm never stops, nor does being a parent, so the day-to-day transition for Fiona and Shaw can be a busy balancing act.

“It’s a juggling match. Like all working mums and dads, if you don’t get it done during the day, you do it at night. I have no idea how many hours I clock,” laughs Fiona.

Hanna Arable grow oats, wheat, barley and oilseed rape. Their arable business has grown over time and their farming heritage proved to be the perfect foundation.

“I grew up on a dairy farm and Shaw has worked in agriculture his entire life. He has done lots of different things; he spent time in America and Australia and helped on his home farm, although that was never his job.

“His father retired from dairy farming a number of years ago, the land was leased to neighbours for a few years and then Shaw farmed it, so he started the current business at that point.

I am learning a lot as I go

“It began as a side line from his main job, he was working for a crops farmer at that time. He planted wheat and barley, it was a small patch and that was how he started, then he took on another farm business. We rent lots of land here, there and everywhere.”

Fiona and Shaw have grown the business so that it can now create enough income to be Shaw’s full-time role and Fiona also works part-time.

“I am learning a lot as I go. I’m interested in knowing why we’re using particular products, why we do things on certain days, the implications of the weather and the growth stages.

“Working together has been a learning curve, go back a generation or two and everybody talks about the farmer’s wife, it’s an undersold role, but a really important one.”


With summer upon us, Fiona and Shaw’s third harvest is fast approaching.

“The first harvest is usually 20 July onwards. Cutting depends on the weather because the drier it is in the field before you start, the less cost you will incur. When the seeds come in they have to be dried to a certain moisture level so we can store them properly and are kept at optimum quality, but that costs money so dry days allow us to start at a better place.

“We have some spring crops, but the bulk is winter crops. They’re all planted in theory before the end of October, depending on what the crop type is.

“We do maintenance throughout the year, the crops are fed fertilizer and they’re looked after in terms of plant protection; for example there may be weeds that need to be dealt with to let the crop grow. We’ve a specialist adviser who works with us on that, an agronomist.

“The big thing for us is that it’s a long incubation. If you make a mistake, if something goes wrong or you catch a disease, it’s a year before you plant another crop, it’s gambling on a big scale.”

Keeping it local after the harvest, the oats are transported to a location very close to home.

We’re always on the lookout for opportunities to change and grow our business

“Sometimes the oats go into animal food but the human consumption market would be our premium market, so you really want to grow the right quality based on what the factory wants to mill it into, whether that’s porridge or whatever else they use it for. White’s is the name of the local mill that the oats go to.

“The rest of the crops end up in the mouths of an animal, generally in Northern Ireland. We sell direct to local farmers and to merchants, and through other contracts it would then go into manufacturing of animal feeds for chickens or pigs, or mixes for cattle.”

Looking towards the future, Fiona and Shaw are keeping an eye on any up-and-coming opportunities.

“We’re always on the lookout for opportunities to change and grow our business. We’re thinking: ‘Where’s the next place to go?’ It’s about finding that next niche or opportunity, diversification being the buzz word, and it’s about being brave and finding that idea to work towards.”

Find out more about BOI Open Farm Weekend at

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