When sifting through a pile of old diaries that were cluttering up a bedside cabinet, Alan Kyle’s wife Agnes asked him what he was going to do with them. He didn’t really have an answer but as he paused for a moment to think about it, Agnes asked, “Why don’t you write your life story?”
The seed had been planted. And over the course of the next six months it germinated in Alan’s head until one day in November 2011 the retired dairy farmer opened a word document and began typing with one finger!
Some three and half years later ‘A Touch Of Grass’ was ready for the book shelves.
“I kept a diary from 1952, since I was 15,” recalled the Omagh man.
“Don’t ask me why, I just wrote down what I did every day. Very menial, minor things.
“I kept on doing it until 1999 when we moved to our retirement bungalow. Which was nearly 50 years.”
Alan’s story is one of a teenager who loved the great outdoors, a man who was willing to learn and embrace new ideas, a businessman who was driven by the bottom line, a farmer who had a passion for dairy production and producing milk cheaply off the green stuff – grass. Hence the title of his new book which was officially launched earlier this year.
‘A Touch Of Grass’ is a superbly illustrated production of some 450 pages that not only chronicles Alan’s life story and charts the many changes and developments in agriculture over more than half a century but is also an historical account of the local area and records events that have shaped his life and the landscape around him.
It’s glossy, full colour design is not only appealing to the eye but makes it the quintessential coffee-table production, a book than can be picked up and read for 10 minutes until the next time. Perfect for the busy modern day farmer for sure!
The detail, information and thought that has gone into the book is nothing short of extraordinary.
Even in the appendix Alan has published the date his cows were turned out to grass each year and other revealing facts that he had religiously scribbled in his diaries over 47 years.
On February 15, 1971 he recorded ‘decimal currency started’, on May 9 he wrote ‘new Abbey sower very bad, changed to Vicon for £475 extra’ and on June 5, 1975 he noted ‘EEC Referendum. Voted yes (very bad mistake)’.
Most farmers would wholeheartedly agree with that last sentiment. By his own admission, Alan is straight-talking, opinionated and, at times, highly controversial with little or no time for the bureaucrats from Brussels.
“I have a hatred of the EU, all the rules and the regulations, the bureaucracy and red tape. As I see it they want to control every aspect of our lives,”said Alan, a sceptic of global warming.
What some of his former fellow farmers certainly wouldn’t agree with is his belief there should be no subsidy at all!
“We’d be far better off without subsidy because the EU are using that as a big stick to beat us. I have a son farming in New Zealand and I have been there seven times in the last 20 years. I have seen their system with no subsidy and it’s a buoyant place. It’s prosperous and the outlook for farming is so much better.
“Dairy farmers out there have a totally different outlook and mindset. If the milk price is low, they plan around it and cope.
“They don’t look for a handout to tide them over. If grass is scarce they don’t reach for the meal bag to fill the cow, they put some cows dry, sell cull cows a bit sooner or maybe put the entire herd on to once a day milking until the grass picks up. They have a totally different mentality, it’s all about keeping costs down.”
Alan has been a long-time admirer of the New Zealand dairy farmer who has been operating without subsidy payments since in 1984.
And over a lifetime producing milk he has tried to replicate the New Zealand model at Lisahoppin farm, which is located near the Leap Bridge on the Beragh to Omagh Road.
He admits to making many mistakes along the way – the biggest being a move into suckler cow production for five years – but never claimed to have all the answers. However Alan, the current chairman of the Tyrone Farming Society, always believed in what he was doing and by the time he retired handed over his herd of some 190 cows to his second son Michael.
By his own admission Alan admits that both Michael and his other son Kenneth have taken milk production onto a whole new level although they have carried on their father’s passion for doing it the New Zealand way.
Michael sold Lisahoppin Farm in 2006 and is now milking 750 cows on a low-cost system in Dumfries while Kenneth, whose wife Orla tragically died of cancer last year, is currently running a herd of over 400 cows in New Zealand.
Alan Kyle’s story is a fascinating one. By no means was it all plain sailing, there were many trials and tribulations, highs and lows along the way, the most recent being the passing of his daughter-in-law.
There was also more than one crisis to deal with. Burrowing money at nearly 20 per-cent was challenging to say the least, then there was the unprecedented slump in prices in 1974, the particularly wet summer of 1985 and the arrival of BSE which led to the export ban of 1996, Lisahoppin losing more cows than any other farm in the North.
However Alan wouldn’t change a thing. Through it all he diligently ploughed ahead with passion and verve, with one eye on the bigger picture and a clear vision of his goals. He always harboured a love of the soil and a passion for the farming that stretches right back to the days when he first kept a diary as a teenager. Back then Alan’s parents encouraged their only son to take an academic route, hoping he would train to be a doctor, a vet or an accountant.
Alan though had his mind made up. “They sent me to Omagh Academy but to tell you the truth I couldn’t really see the value in learning French, Calculus or Latin!”
*The book is on general sale in Omagh’s Carlisle Bookshop priced £20. It can be ordered by post, £4 postage and package or £7 from ROI. Contact Alan Kyle 07990980405. All profits from the book will go towards Cancer Research UK.