Up to relatively recently, the image that many people had of a farmer wasn’t much different to that portrayed by Richard Harris as the Bull McCabe in John B Keane’s The Field. Indeed, that image even bears an amazing similarity to the photograph on the fly leaf of the recently published Irish Farmers Journal – A History.

Here, the image is of an elderly man bent over doing back-breaking manual labour. Happily, by the mid-1980s that outdated imagery was well on the way to being replaced by the much more positive ‘farm family’.

Katie Gleeson enjoying the Women and Agriculture conference 2023 in the Lyrath Hotel, Co Kilkenny. \ Philip Doyle

The Irish Farmers Journal recognised this change and set out to provide attractive editorial content that would appeal to this potential new audience.

New departures

The first iteration of this was the Home Farm section. It proved a success so much so that the weekly ‘Country living’ section (not to be confused with the current Irish Country Living) was launched in February 1986.

Irish Farmers Journal and Irish Country Living staff at the Women and Agriculture conference 2022 in Trim, Co Meath. \ Philip Doyle

Here, the emphasis was on gardening and cookery, the development of off-farm businesses, health matters and the quality of life in rural Ireland.

Gardening specialist Gerry Daly was an early contributor, as was Myrtle Allen. Her family told me that she had six people make each recipe to ensure that readers would have no problems following the recipe. She also priced every ingredient to ensure readers could afford to make it.

Home DIY and decoration, as well as columnists Liz Kavanagh and Pat Bolger, local history, wildlife and consumer advice all had a place in the new weekly magazine.

Staying positive

Over the years, the supplement was to rebrand as ‘Section 2’, then ‘The Journal’ and most recently as Irish Country Living in June 2008.

At that time, much of the national and local media output was focused on the dire economic situation the country found itself in as a result of the banking crises.

With this in mind, a clear editorial direction was made to bypass the negativity and seek out and highlight all that was positive and innovative on farms and across rural Ireland.

Content had to be readable and relatable to the lives of our readers and serious efforts were made to encourage participation by readers.

New initiatives

The IFA calendar competition was the first of these initiatives and attracted great interest.

The Land Report proved hugely popular and was blessed with a brilliant team that strived to chase down an increased number of transactions every year.

The Farmyard Awards were a pure joy and the presentation of prizes on the Tuesday evening at the National Ploughing Championships was a highlight of the year.

It was heart-warming to see three generations of a family break down in tears when the work and care they put into their farmyards was recognised on a national stage.

An alliance with the ag science teachers and Agri Aware set out to support second-level pupils with farm visits, modern agricultural science school books and resources. This effort saw ag science student numbers increase significantly, especially in urban areas.

The late Vicky Phelan, the woman who exposed the cervical cancer scandal, at the Women and Agriculture 2019 conference in the Radisson Blu, Rosses Point, Sligo.

Education at all levels has always been of interest to farming families. So too has the range of careers available in the agri-food sector. The career days held in the RDS set out to showcase the enormous variety of careers available in the agriculture and agri-food sectors. Indeed, it was amazing that, at one stage, the doors of the RDS had to be closed because of the crowds trying to get in.

According to David Leydon, former sales and marketing manager of the Irish Farmers Journal, the formula proved a success, with readership of Irish Country Living increasing from 145,000 to 179,000 readers in 2011 alone – an increase of 34%.

‘Get in the photograph’

Not so long ago, the vast majority of photographs in the Irish Farmers Journal were of men.

Women just didn’t feature. As guest speaker at the Women and Agriculture conference, Mairead McGuinness, now European Commissioner for financial services, urged farm women to “get in the photograph”. She implored farm women to come forward and have their voices heard.

Ciara Leahy welcomes over 600 delegates to the Women and Agriculture conference in the Lyrath Hotel, Co Kilkenny. \ Philip Doyle

Young women and girls needed female role models in the sector and it was our job to highlight them. The annual Women and Agriculture conference gave farm women a profile and a voice. For many of the speakers, it was their first time to stand before 600 women and tell their farming story and they were brilliant.

Award-winning farm women

The bi-annual Women and Agriculture Awards were launched to coincide with an EU-wide competition organised by Copa Cogeca. The competition aimed to find innovative farm women whose work could be applied across the EU.

In what was a remarkable achievement, Ann Moore from Cork and Margaret Farrelly from Cavan were outright winners of the EU award in 2011 and 2015.

It would be fair to say Irish Country Living has found a place in the hearts of Irish farm women.

That connection was recognised when Irish Country Living was named Newspaper Magazine of the Year in 2022 – the work of many hands rewarded.