Anna Truesdale had just finished her GCSEs when she entered into the first of several battles of wills with her farmer father Mark.
The Down High student wanted to leave school completely and come and work on Fairyhill Farm, the family’s 150 acre dairy and sheep farm on the edge of Dundrum.
The now 22-year-old aced her exams, achieving six A stars and four As - and her dad insisted that she go back to sit her A levels.
“I did Maths, Biology and Business Studies - the perfect mix for farming,” smiles the stunning young blonde, gently stroking the head of a baby lamb in her arms, as we stand chatting beside one of the sheep pens.
Again, the same debate reared its head around the Truesdale family dinner table; Anna was adamant that she would be going into full time farming with her father and older brother William - her other brother James has his own business, and her mum Joan and younger sister Amy help run the family’s caravan site, Murlough Cottage Caravan Park - whilst Mark wanted her to continue her education if she got good results.
There were more straight As in store for the Co Down girl, and so she enrolled on a BSc in Agricultural Technology with Professional Studies which was split between Queen’s University Belfast and CAFRE at Greenmount, and included a year working out in the industry.
She got a First Class Degree, and her father suggested that she think about doing a Masters - then quickly relented.
Laughs Anna: “I said I’m coming home to farm and that’s it.”
And indeed, that it was. Since then, Anna spends her time mucking in and working with her family on every single aspect of daily farm life, from feeding and milking the animals, to being present when their offspring are delivered, and she’s also hoping to follow in her father’s footsteps by getting her qualification in AI - or Artificial Insemination.
“Growing up on a farm was absolutely fantastic,” she says, as we reverse out of the main farmyard, and amble down the stony lane back to the main road, where she’s taking me to see some Dorset ewes out in one of the fields with their flock. I’m already slightly overwhelmed by all I’ve seen and heard, having just received a fascinating glimpse into agricultural life at its rawest.
“When I was a kid I used to sit on the steps of the parlour and just watch dad work. I loved it all, and I used to ask him if I could hose the yard out when milking was over. I would even ask if he could hand me the cow dung that might have escaped when he was AI-ing the cows. If there was a cowpat anywhere you could guarantee I’d be standing in it. I was just fascinated by it all.”
She adds: “It was all instilled in us from an early age, to work hard and respect the animals.”
Anna’s all about the outdoor life. Dressed in black jeans and wellies with a navy Ulster Rugby hoodie, her hair is piled on top of her head in a messy ponytail, and she takes such long strides as we march across the farm that I almost struggle to keep up.
Or maybe I’m just getting used to the green Hunters Anna dug out for me to wear after shooting a suspicious look at the pristine white Converse trainers I rather foolishly arrived in.
But that subtle smudge of eyeliner she’s wearing tells me this is a young lady who also likes to shake off the sawdust and peel off her overalls to get prettified, hit the town, and generally relax after a busy week. And she insists that seeing her father work long hours as a child didn’t put her off at all.
“Growing up, we didn’t really get holidays; our big family thing was that mum and dad would take us to McDonald’s on a Friday night in Downpatrick.
“But it could have reached half eight and he was still working - and so we would just try and go the following week.
“Dad worked serious hours, and I’ve never seen him in the house before six in the evening, but it was all I’ve ever known. In our house, work finished when work finished. Dad loves being busy, and even with William and I here now full time, it’s hard to get him to slow down. He would sit here until midnight watching those sheep.” It’s an outstanding work ethic that Anne inherited and which consequently saw her in good stead when she went off to Greenmount, and there she also revelled in, for the first time, studying alongside fellow students who were as enthused about agriculture as she was.
She also works part time with Cogent Breeding Ltd., helping the company’s AI technicians and their Precision Farmers handle data for their farms.
“I love learning, and the course was fanastic; I didn’t really like school - it was just somewhere were you had to go, whereas at Greenmount everything was so applicable and interesting to me. I would have read extra things I didn’t need to purely in case they might have helped me on the farm.”
But ever practical, Anna knows that books can only supplement a young person’s farming knowledge - not replace it. “Be prepared not to know everything - and be prepared to learn different ways of doing things,” she says after a moment’s thought, when I ask her what advice she would pass on to other young people in Ulster considering going into full time farming. And despite being surrounded by animals all day, you need to be a people person - that’s what she loves most about working in the industry. “There are so many farmers doing such a fantastic job, so many smart people. You have to be smart to be a farmer, there’s so much science involved. At the end of the day, it’s a cliche, but society is built on farming, and your whole subsistance comes from it.”
Instagram hit Anna bringing farming to life via social media
In today’s world of social media obsession, it’s about the likes, and the shares, and the number of followers you have - popularity means nothing if you can’t put a figure on deemed appropriate by Twitter or Facebook.
But it doesn’t boil down to a numbers game for no reason - and one click on Anna Truesdale’s Instagram account will show you why.
Over 19,000 people follow ‘annatrue’ for her daily updates, which include snaps and videos of her feeding calves, clipping ewes’ nails, carrying bags of meal, and driving the tractor.
Her candid commentary and hilarious, cheery captions have attracted hoards of ‘likes’ and comments - as well as a range of questions from curious followers the world over, from a farming background themselves or otherwise.
“Nothing is really off limits,” she says.
Anna certainly never set out to be an Instagram hit per se - initially, it was simply another form of social media for her to post all her farming pictures on, after she convinced herself she was boring all her non-agricultural Facebook friends!
“When I go back now and look at all my old Facebook posts, well, I was really annoying,” she laughs.
“Once I got to 2,000 followers on Instagram, I started thinking, this could be huge.
“The response I get from it is fantastic - I would get people asking me five or six questions a day!
“For example, this morning a fella asked me if I thought feeding calves antibiotic milk would affect their health adversely.”
Anna says she always gives her answers with the careful caveat: ‘I’m not qualified to say - but this is just what I think’, and indeed it would appear that her opinions are highly sought.
“Another guy has messaged me telling me his girlfriend was a vegan, and said x,y,z - could I tell him what I thought?
“Then another day a man messaged me and thanked me for my Instagram account, saying that his 13-year-old daughter hadn’t taken an interest in the family farm until she came across my page, and now she wanted to be out with him all the time.”
Adds Anna: “If I’m helping people realise that this is what they could be doing, and all this is just outside their door, and showing people that farming isn’t hard work all the time and can be fun, then I think that’s great.
“Farming is really rewarding work - I wouldn’t be doing it if it wasn’t. Having healthy stock, with shining coats, happy and full of energy, well, I just love to see that.”
‘Running the farm myself would be terrifying and exciting’
Despite the fact that Brexit is undoubtedly one of, if not the, biggest issues today, it’s rather refreshing to meet a young farmer who admits it “doesn’t really keep me up at night.”
Says Anna: “Ignorance is bliss I guess.”
She agrees, however, that mental health is one which is growing in importance for many of Ulster’s farmers, and the nature of the job itself can bring its challenges.
“The sun helps fantastically, but when the weather changes, and it’s raining and dark and cold, farming can be really hard.
“Or if you get struck by a disease on your farm like TB it can be heartbreaking.”
But Anna feels very happy and mentally ‘healthy’ at this point in her life, and attributes it to a number of things, including her youth and daily connection to other people, and “the fact that not everything is on my shoulders as well.”
Although that’s not to say she wouldn’t like it to be...some day...
“I would love to,” she admits, when I ask her if she could see herself at the helm of Fairyhill some day.
“It would be terrifying and exciting in equal measure.
“Obviously I love farming along with dad and William, and making the decisions together. But to be able to get up in the morning and think, ‘I want to do this today and nobody can stop me’, to have something that is mine - would be amazing.”
Indeed, I have no doubt that the Co Down girl would be more than capable of such a responsibility, although she admits she’s certainly faced “stand-offish” attitudes from some of her male counterparts.
“Once they spend 10 minutes or so with me they realise I know what I’m talking about,” she laughs.
So would she ever marry a farmer then?
I’m fully expecting her reply to shatter the hearts of YFC lads all over the country, but as usual, Anna is full of surprises.
“I would love to marry a farmer,” she laughs. “He would understand the demands of the job, plus being able to raise a family on a farm would be my absolute dream. I could be a farmer’s wife no problem.”
I ask her if she can bake, cook, sew and be a homemaker too, then, but of course she can.
Gentlemen, please form an orderly queue...
Tending round the clock to the Fairyhill Farm flock
Anna knows every one of the 100 pedigree Holstein-Friesian cows managed by the Truesdales by name.
There are currently around 15 due to have calves within the next two months.
The herd gained full pedigree status in 1989, and produce around two to two and a half thousand litres of milk per day.
Anna, William and Mark also farm sheep, including a pedigree Dorset flock under the ‘Donard’ name and a pedigree Texel flock under the name Fairyhill on a 150-acre grazing platform. Beef calves are also sold on the farm; the trio retains a selection of Holstein bulls which are sold to other breeders when they reach 18 months of age. Anna says they generally work on a Sunday evening, and then every day until around 6.30pm, including Saturdays, when it’s time to finish up, and for Anna, hit the town with her buddies from Spa YFC.
She’ll enjoy a lie in on a Sunday morning, and then it all starts again.