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Omagh farmer elected President of Grassland Society

AN OMAGH farmer has become the first local person to be elected President of the British Grassland Society (BGS).

Drew McConnell, who along with his wife Valerie runs a dairy, beef and sheep farm in the townland of Carrigans, just outside Omagh, was elected president at last week’s annual general meeting.

Mr McConnell, who also sits on the board of Lakeland Dairies and up until recently served on the dairy committee of Agrisearch, admitted he was shocked to be called to high office but said it would be an honour and privilege to head up the Society for the next 12 months.

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“It certainly came as a bit of a shock, the presidency hasn’tcome to Northern Ireland very often in the past,” he said.

“I had been an area rep for Northern Ireland on the BGS Council, that’s probably why my name came to the fore.

“I was president of the Ulster Grassland Society back in 2012. There are two grassland organisations in Northern Ireland, the other one being the Fermanagh Grassland Club. Both are affiliated to the BGS.

“The presidency lasts a year. I was on the committee this year and the year after serving as president you remain on the committee for a year. All told it’s a three-year term.
“It’s a real honour for me and my family that I have been asked to do the job.”

Mr McConnell, who has three grown up daughters, Debbie, Kathy and Ellie, runs a 160-strong dairy herd while his wife Valerie takes charge of the suckler cow, beef and sheep enterprise on the farm.

The new BGS President has been farming for 40 years having stepped away from a career in accountancy and alongside his love of farming and the great outdoors he is a strong advocate of on-farm research.

Not surprisingly he has passion for the production and utilisation of grass which he insists is the healthiest, cheapest and environmentally-friendly means of producing food.

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Just last week the British Grassland Society had planned a tour of farms in Northern Ireland but because of Covid-19 that had to be shelved. All though is not lost and it is hoped that that particular tour can take place in June 2021.

“There is a summer tour every year and it goes around the different societies in the UK and sometimes they go further afield to places like France and Holland,” continued Drew.

“This year’s cancelled event has been rescheduled for next year if there are no issues and that will be coming towards the end of my term.

“There is also a conference pencilled in for March and around the same time there are usually a number of farm walks. We’ll be involved in that as well.

“The Grassland Society is about promoting the vital role of grassland farming. Grass is the cheapest feed for livestock but it’s also got other roles as well.

“Digestors and the production of energy have come into play and with the protection of the environment becoming ever more important grass has a role to play in terms of carbon sequestration.

“It’s also worth remembering that grassland societies are not just made up of farmers. One year the president could be a farmer, the next someone from the agriculture industry side of the things and the following year a scientist.

“I firmly believe in the science around these things, on-farm research and trials because there is so much to be gained. I have learned so much about my own farm have taken part in research projects.

“The public want to see cows eating grass, they want to see beef cattle out in the field. It’s very important that we do our best to promote farming in a good light. The consumer can be very fickle but if we can get them onside and work with them then it’ll be better for everyone in the longer term.

“People are now more interested where there food comes from, maybe furlough has given them to think about it. Farmers got the blame for greenhouse gases but since planes have stopped flying the sky has got bluer, people have now seen the top of mountains that they had seen for decades.

“People are realising that farmers weren’t to blame all along but there is still a media battle to be win.

“The aim of the BGS is to promote grassland and provide farmers with the knowledge and the tools so that they can develop their own businesses how they see fit.

“That all feeds into creating a good image of farming and right perception for the public.”

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