Linda O Neill wasn’t entirely sure where her career would start when she completed the leaving cert and with all her friends heading off to city colleges, she felt it was the right thing to follow them. With a place in Cork on a computer science course, it looked like that was her next move until her father had a word in her ear.
“I distinctly remember the conversation. He sat me down and he said he thought I was just following the pack really as all my friends were going to college. I think that was a massive turning point for me. My dad could see it in me and thought hold on a while, this is going to be a waste of time and I was doing it for the wrong reasons,” she says.
“So, he said to me at that point, why wouldn’t you just go to agricultural college in Clonakilty for a year, treat it as a year out and see if you like it and if there are career opportunities out there for you.”
From computer science to dairying
He was right, she enjoyed her year and found her calling. Dairy became a huge interest of Linda’s and she decided to pursue further education after the initial year. She stayed on to complete a diploma in Clonakilty which was also one day a week in CIT for the ag science portion of the course.
“I found it quite daunting at the start until I got to know people. That was a point in my life too that I started to feel I kind of needed to start to prove myself a bit as well,” she says. “Up until then I had just been following the pack.”
“During the first year, past students came in and talked about their careers and showed that they were able to make a career out of farming. At that time there was a dairy diploma on offer for year two and three and I signed up for that,” says Linda.
Linda went on to top up her diploma with a certificate in farm business management through a farm apprenticeship scheme.
“I didn’t get to degree level, which I would like to have got to, but I still felt I had a good grounding in the course that I had done over the four years,” she adds.
It certainly didn’t hold her back because she decided that she should broaden her horizons and travel elsewhere to further build on her experience.
She headed to New Zealand to work on a 700-cow dairy farm which had just been converted from sheep to dairy.
“That was quite an eye-opener. The scale was just mind blowing. That for me was a really big step. When I went over there I was really homesick and I struggled at the start, I found it a massive challenge,” she says.
Linda managed to hang in there and she says her reason for sticking it out at the beginning was her dad had told her leaving she would be home within a month.
“I said I’m not giving in to that, only for that I probably would have ended up coming back home. I think if I had come home from New Zealand in the first month or two, I would probably be down in West Cork now probably doing something in Agri business.”
In total, Linda spent two years in New Zealand and ended up as an assistant farm manager on a 1400-cow farm on the South Island. She says if it wasn’t so far from Ireland she would have stayed. In Ireland there was quota constraints and in New Zealand there was just opportunities everywhere for young people.
“At the end of the day I was missing out on family and friends with being so far away from home, so I decided to return,” she explains.
Return to Ireland
In May 2006 Linda took a job as farm manager at Mount Melleray Abbey, which is a farm owned by Cistercian monks in Co Waterford. She spent five years there, during which she converted the farm from year-round milking to a spring calving herd.
She moved from that role to work for genetics company LIC Ireland for a taste of the agribusiness side of things and worked her way up to the national sales manager position.
During her time in Mount Melleray she’d met Pat Ryan who became a mentor to her and after seven years of working with LIC Ireland Linda found her way back to farming by way of a partnership with Pat.
“Pat was very willing to get skin in the game and get involved in business and I said I want that. I said to Pat one day that I wanted a farm in my own right and he said you find the farm and I’ll back you,” she says.
Today Linda and Pat lease two farms in Co Waterford in a 50/50 partnership. Linda has stuck to her love of dairy and milks 350 cows across the two farms. CL