Women in agriculture profile featuring Roberta Simmons

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Place you call home: Annaclone, County Down.

Occupation: Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU) membership development officer. The role supports the membership director in the daily running of the UFU membership department, assisting with membership related initiatives and liaising directly with a number of UFU groups supporting their UFU membership retention and recruitment activities. The role also sees us visit several agricultural shows/events and marts throughout the year. It’s hugely demanding but rewarding and at the heart of the agricultural industry.

Farming commodity: Beef.

How did you become involved in farming?

Roberta SimmonsRoberta Simmons
Roberta Simmons

Growing up on a family farm as one of four daughters, I was lucky enough to be exposed from a young age to agriculture and the importance it plays in feeding the nation. I do not live on a large farm but have grown up on the family holding, rearing store cattle to finishing and am a partner on the same. I had plenty of opportunities as a child to help my father, and muck in with jobs around the farm. I had a great love of farming from a young age, and as soon as I was old enough loved to get driving the tractor!!

As a teenager I was heavily involved in Rathfriland Young Farmers Club and held many official posts within the club before moving on to county and central levels within the Young Farmers’ Clubs of Ulster (YFCU). In 2015, I was elected as president of the organisation. It was an absolute honour and delight to have been the fifth female president in the history of the organisation. Several new initiatives and programmes were implemented throughout my two-year term through working together with governmental bodies to reach targets and provide meaningful contribution to the rural youth of Northern Ireland (NI).

One such initiative and brainchild which took up a lot of this time and which I was very passionate about, was the Land Mobility scheme. Together with the UFU we had many meetings and were able to secure departmental funding to allow us to appoint a facilitator. It is clear that we have an ageing farming population and a large proportion of our farming businesses have not identified a successor. This is a highly emotive and personal issue for many, and we have over this last number of years, seen the implementation of the scheme which is going from strength to strength helping with these succession issues.

Earliest farming memory: Gathering potatoes with my sisters on the farm and after the first day having to sit on the drills as it just got too much!!!

Roberta SimmonsRoberta Simmons
Roberta Simmons

What personal characteristics did you develop from agriculture?

As well as hands-on job skills I have picked up along the way, I would say a list of core competencies that I have developed are accountability, ambition, communication, conflict resolution, decisiveness, delegation, flexibility, initiative, stress management and teamwork.

Life lesson you learnt from farming: How to survive, be strong, independent, self-reliant and responsible.

What do you enjoy most about the farming lifestyle?

Roberta SimmonsRoberta Simmons
Roberta Simmons

The fresh air, green fields and just a nice way of life. It takes hard work and determination, but you pick up all sorts of life-skills and who needs the gym when you live on a farm!

Describe a farmer in three words: Hardworking, adaptable and committed.

What would you like the public to know about NI farming?

Farming is not just a job but a wonderful way of life to those who love nature and animals and are not afraid of hard work.

Farming is a business that focuses on longer-term time horizons. The agri-food sector is of vital importance to the NI economy, now and in the future. For many years it has been one of the primary drivers of our economy providing many jobs and contributing to the sustainability of the rural sector and I have no doubt it will continue to do so.

I believe traceability is vital, helping as it does to give local beef an edge in a competitive market. We work with beef cattle that are slaughtered through ABP in Newry. Traceability is central in everything we do, which is why we only produce Farm Quality Assured beef. Our cattle are looked after in the best way we can. They are fed on good quality grass in the summer and silage in the winter months, topped up with meal. Knowing the quality and what goes into everything we feed cattle is vitally important.

We are producing food to feed our country and that makes me immensely proud. I really love the sense of community and support among farmers too. Our industry’s resilience is admirable. We know just how tough farming can be, and there is no doubt that if you need a hand, a farmer would be there to step in and help.

If you could give farmers/farming families/ farming community one piece of advice what would it be?

Never stop learning. There are so many sources available to access for free, and many of them produced by industry experts. Podcasts are a great resource to learn from while on the go and remember hard work can get you anywhere you want to be.

What would you say to others who are considering a career in the agri industry?

As a woman in what is still a male-dominated field, there is still sometimes ignorance from the public. Thankfully this stigma is starting to disappear with the number of females in the industry continuing to grow and I think the role of females in agriculture is so important. When I was growing up, I would have loved to have seen more females farming as a child and it wasn’t presented that strongly as a career at school. I am pleased social media has given female farmers a platform and I now know there’s no end to inspirational females working in our industry. My advice would be to just go for it, build your knowledge and take every opportunity.

What are your hopes for the future of Northern Ireland’s agriculture industry?

Our industry’s resilience is admirable but rising costs are becoming more and more crippling. Food is still the primary purpose of farming, and always will be. We need farming and food production to be resilient and sustainable over the long term.

I believe we need a functioning Executive to get back to work now so we can get schemes that work for farm businesses, food production and the environment. We need them to get serious about our food and deliver so that food and farming can thrive.

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