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Trip to Ireland sheds light on farming, rural life

Staff writer

Every fall Gary and Marilyn Jones of Peabody take a trip out of Marion County. This year, their destination was Ireland; their plan, to see rural life and farms; their guide, Irish native, Noel McSweeney, and his wife, Debbie, also of Peabody.

“We had been to Ireland 30 years ago,” Marilyn Jones said. “But that time we were part of a tour group that focused on the cities and castle ruins. This time we wanted to meet real people and see the farms.”

The Joneses, who have been to New Zealand, Australia, Chile, Switzerland, and several other countries, have a lifelong interest in farming.

Originally from Dexter, Gary and Marilyn moved to a small farm south of Peabody in 1961. About that time, Gary began teaching vocational agriculture at Peabody High School, a position he held for 32 years, and Marilyn pursued gardening and small animal production interests, along with him.

Their small farm interests led them to a friendship with the McSweeney. Noel is a native of Ireland and his mother and close relatives welcomed the chance for him to visit this September, along with the Joneses.

“We paid for the trip over,” Marilyn Jones said. “But Noel and Debbie planned our itinerary and took us right into the rural homes. It was the best vacation ever.”

Ireland is a country often connected in thought with fairies, ghosts, castles, and sword fighting. But the Joneses said it was really a place of green fields, stone fences, very friendly people, and innovative farming practices.

“I wouldn’t say they are progressive,” Gary Jones said. “But they are resilient, industrious, figure out ways to make things work, and they make products that last.”

One stop on the Joneses’ rural exploration was the National Plowing Contest in Dublin.

“It was like two of our state fairs rolled into one,” Jones said. “There were so many people it was hard to see what was going on sometimes.”

Jones said the attraction of this farm gathering, held on a 600-acre stage, was competitions between 10 to 15 teams of horse-drawn plows, and then run-offs between tractor-pulled plows. There were also many farm displays, notable to him were 20 breeds of sheep, many breeds of cattle he had never seen before, and machinery.

“They had all kinds of new tractors and farm machinery I’d never seen before,” he said.

Jones said much of the farm equipment there was built to withstand and work in rain and mud.

“There were trailers that had logs for tires so they wouldn’t sink and get stuck,” he said.

These trailers were used to harvest peat, compacted soil chunks, from the bogs. Peat is the main source of heat in rural Ireland, and the smell of a peat fire is very earthy, Marilyn Jones said.

They saw donkeys pulling peat log trailers from the bogs to the local farm markets.

Proximity to the ocean and a year-round temperate climate at 60 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit, plus rain almost every day, creates a lot of mud. To deal with the moisture, Irish farmers seldom use wood in their structures or fences. Most fences were made of stone and most buildings constructed of cinder block or cement.

Jones said the moist climate led to prolific gardens and hay fields, but very little grain is grown or harvested in Ireland.

“We did see some fields of barley,” he said. “But their primary agricultural focus is hay, pasture, and dairying.”

Many farms in Ireland are still family owned and passed down through generations. The average farm is only about 30 to 40 acres, and the average dairy milks 30 head of cattle.

“We met a family that made cheese from their own cows,” he said. “But most milk is not grade A certified and it goes to a factory for dried milk and baby food.”

Jones said the beef cattle industry was thriving in Ireland as well, but some aspects of it were puzzling to him.

“We stayed at a rural bed and breakfast inn that was a working cattle ranch,” he said. “They never castrate any of their calves and market pens of full-fledged bulls.”

Jones said he also found it interesting that many of the cattle were double-muscled.

“I think one farmer told me they have almost a 90 percent c-section rate during calving season,” he said. “But they are proud of those huge double-muscled cows.”

Marilyn Jones said the two breeds of cattle on the farm at which they stayed were Charolais and Belgium Blue.

Since the Joneses are sheep farmers, they took particular interest in the sheep farms they saw in Ireland.

“Sheep are very well respected,” Marilyn Jones said. “If there were ever sheep on the road, you best not disturb them in any way. That was a big no-no.”

Most roads were paved but were also very narrow, so meeting sheep and waiting on them to cross was not unusual on their foray through the rural areas of Ireland.

“As narrow as the roads were, we never saw any accidents,” Marilyn Jones said. “In fact, we saw very few vehicles at all; most people there walked or rode a bicycle. They all seemed to be quite physically fit.”

She said there was also a tremendous train service that reached both ends of the country.

Perhaps the thing that impressed the Joneses most about their trip to Ireland, was the friendliness of the people.

“Anywhere you went people would always stop and talk to you,” Gary Jones said. “It was probably one of the friendliest places we have ever visited.”

Last modified Nov. 3, 2011

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