I’ve broken bones, had stitches ... farm safety is so important

Farm safety and the mental wellbeing of those involved in the industry is important, so says John Arnold
I’ve broken bones, had stitches ... farm safety is so important

John Arnold, Minister Martin Heydon and young farmer Donncha O’Brien at the launch of the farm safety initiative in Cork on Monday.

AMAZING, isn’t it, the things that can have a life-changing effect on a person. It might be an accident, an injury, or a health scare.

A person’s life and career path might seem laid out before them - a straight path seemingly - but there’s very few roads without a turning and many a bump along the way.

I met Martin Heydon for the first time last Monday. Born in rural south Kildare in the 1970s, he hailed from a farming family. Like many of his countymen, young Heydon had a passion for Gaelic football and joined his local club, St Laurence’s. In his part of Kildare, football was and is the big game.

The ‘Lilywhites’, though not high up on the Roll of Honour for winning Leagues and All Irelands, are still a mighty side and have consistently played lovely football over the decades.

Like all lads his age, Martin dreamt of donning that famous all-white jersey. However, at the age of just 18 he received a serious injury whilst playing a game. Though accidental, it had a profound influence on his life. The result of the collision on the football pitch meant the teenager lost a kidney.

His days of playing Gaelic football were over and lofty dreams of lifting Sam with Kildare quickly evaporated. Though not able to play, he stayed involved with the administrative side of his club, St Laurence’s.

To fill the void in his life, he also got involved in party politics. He was asked to run for the County Council elections in 2009 and got elected. Two years later he stood in the general Election and garnered over 12,000 votes at the first attempt to become a TD. He is now over a decade in Dail Eireann.

Since 2020, Martin has been a Junior Minister in the three-party coalition government. He has probably the longest portfolio title of all Government Ministers at present! Junior Minister with responsibility for Research & Development, Farm Safety and New Market Development.

Last Monday, he admitted that he might have become a full-time farmer were it not for what befell him at the age of 18.

It was in the townland of Bushy-park, near Kildinan - between Rathcormac and Glenville - that I met Martin Heydon for the first time. Bushypark was once a large farm or ‘demesne’ owned in the 1790s by the Campion family - descendants of Cromwellian settlers. Later owned by the Greene and Daly families, the estate was taken over by the Irish Land Commission.

In the 1960s, the land was divided and given in parcels of between 40 and 50 acres to several farmers. Some were local and others came from West Cork and Kerry to make a new life in this corner of County Cork.

One of those who came hither, from Ballinagree - Thady Quill country - was John Murphy. I knew John in his old age - he lived past 100 years of age and passed the farm onto his son Patrick and his wife Maureen who died last year.

The Murphys supplemented the farm income by doing contracting for other farmers. Then, in 2013, Patrick and Maureen’s son John returned to Bushypark after years of working, living and travelling abroad.

John’s plan was to expand the dairy enterprise, like so many other dairy farmers were doing at the time. This would have involved buying or leasing land and putting up new sheds, wintering facilities and slurry storage tanks - an expensive investment.

His wife Minna had set up a pre-school in an extension to their home so the future was upwards and onwards.

Fate intervened in a strange way. What’s that they say about ‘the best laid plans of mice and men’?

The ‘Big C’ struck and John Murphy had to undergo a year of cancer treatment. The expansion plans were put on hold. In a strange way, the idea of expansion was replaced by a new concept - diversification. As a farmer who loves and values the land and the soil and the natural environment, John went down a different path.

He weighed up the potential of his farm and decided to change tack away from the ‘bigger is better’ myth. He is one of the 40 or so farmers - I am in that group also - in the BRIDE Project where we ‘promote biodiversity regeneration in a dairying environment’ - in other words, not trying to tame or change nature, but farming with nature. The Minister who changed his career path after a football injury and the farmer who had a serious health scare met in Bushypark last Monday. The occasion was the launch, by the Minister, of Farmers4Safety.

Farming is the most dangerous occupation when it comes to serious and fatal workplace accidents, and this new initiative aims to drastically reduce their incidence.

By raising the awareness of farm safety and also the mental wellbeing of those involved in all facets of agriculture, it is hoped to make farms and farmers safer.

You know the way tis when an Inspector of some sort or shape arrives? You hope he or she doesn’t see this or that ‘little’ problem or potential hazard. The main aim is to get the Inspector, him or her, in for a cup of tea and out the gate as quickly as possible.

It’s a very natural, but extremely negative attitude to have. In order to change this mindset, the Farmers4 Safety project aims to have peer to peer mentors visit farms. In other words, farmers who are trained as safety and wellbeing mentors will visit farms - not in a confrontational way but just to chat, advise and suggest maybe modest changes that can yield major safety outcomes.

Three groups, the BRIDE project in Cork, Wexford’s Duncannon Blue Flag Group, and New Futures Farming Group from Tipperary, have come together. Under the ‘umbrella’ of Irish Rural Link and with back up and funding from the Department of Agriculture, the concept of Managing Risk Together is to be promoted.

Martin Heydon is a hands-on man so it was fitting that it was down on the farm and not in a hotel or government buildings that the scheme was launched.

I know all about farm accidents. I was only married a few months when the tractor rolled over me - luckily it went so fast it only broke ‘a few small bones’ as the doctor in the orthopaedic told me at the time! And then six years ago, stupidly, I was involved with a group cutting timber with chainsaws. A chainsaw slipped and hit me over the eye (my good eye) - I’m still missing a piece of my eye-socket bone but luckily my eyesight was saved and I got close to 20 stitches.

They say you can’t ‘teach old dogs new tricks’, nonsense! After that bad accident I went out and bought goggles, full facial helmet, nylon filled trousers, special gloves and boots with steel toecaps.

In fairness, I learned my lesson, and even if I’m cutting just a small amount of timber, even on a warm day, I’ll don all the gear to stay safe.

Farming in today’s world can be lonely, the days of the hay-making and harvest meitheall are gone. There’s pressure from all sides, machinery is faster and bigger and everyone seems to be rushing.

Last Monday in Bushypark, Minister Heydon urged farmers ‘to learn from one another to make their farms safer places and to improve their health and wellbeing’.

It was a wet morning and maybe if the sun was shining the crowd might have been smaller but I was glad to be there. So was everyone who attended, hopefully we’ll all have learned something and truly become FARMERS4SAFETY.

For more, see http://www.farmers4safety.ie

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