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Welsh farmer balances her parlour with the priesthood

Barry Alston meets up with an award-winning West Wales dairy farmer who is also a shepherd with two- and four-legged ‘flocks.’

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Eileen meeting the congregation after the Communion service at St Non's Church, Llanerchaeron
Eileen meeting the congregation after the Communion service at St Non's Church, Llanerchaeron
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A real balancing act! Juggling a parlour and the priesthood - how one lady does it all #farming #religion

Catch up with Eileen Davies very early in the morning and sometimes in the late afternoon and you will find her milking cows. But for the rest of the time, she takes on a totally different role.

 

A change of outfit and she becomes Reverend Canon Eileen Davies, a fully ordained Church in Wales priest in charge of four West Wales parishes.

 

Her duties do not end there either. She is the designated diocesan adviser on rural matters, working closely with the Farm Crisis Network, the Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institute, the farming unions and the YFC.

 

She is also involved with the Church in Wales Rural Issues Hub, run in conjunction with the Welsh Government and the Royal Welsh Agricultural Society, as well as many other farming organisations across Wales.

 

Her pastoral work concerning the welfare of farmers, especially those working in isolation where loneliness and the accumulation of stress, financial problems, ill health and paperwork overload, can lead to worry and depression, was recognised two years ago, with the award of a prestigious Associateship of the Royal Agricultural Societies.

 

Now, her dedication to the farming industry has earned her another accolade – the Farmers Union of Wales and United Counties Agricultural Society Award for her outstanding service to agriculture.

 

Eileen says: “Needless to say, the tragedies surrounding the ongoing West Wales bovine TB nightmare have occupied much of my ministerial comforting over recent years.”

 

She has also set up a register of names of people who are ready at short notice to offer emergency cover on farms where help is urgently needed through illness or bereavement.

 

Multi-tasking

Rev Canon Eileen Davies is a fully ordained Church in Wales priest in charge of four West Wales parishes

Out on the farm by 6:30am every morning sees her milking the 75-cow pedigree Holstein herd and working side-by-side with her husband Dyfrig on the family’s 121-hectare (300-acre) Gwndwn Farm, near the Carmarthenshire village of Llanllwni.

 

She even takes her annual holidays from the church to assist with her other flock – 200 cross-bred ewes, which start lambing from the end of January.

 

As Rev Eileen Davies, there are very few slack periods in a hectic day-to-day life and no shortage of people making contact.

 

Her parishes, all of which are over the county border in Ceredigion, take in Llanerchaeron, Ciliau Aeron, Dihewyd and Mydroilyn.

 

She and Dyfrig married in 1990, he being the fifth generation to farm at Gwndwn, and both are keen to see their son Owain be the sixth when he completes his education.

 

By no means a stranger to milking cows, her parents had a local 2.4ha (6.5-acre) smallholding and six cows. They were milked by hand with milk going to the Milk Marketing Board until the ending of churn collections forced them to quit.

 

She joined Llanllwni YFC in 1977 and soon became deeply involved in club activities, being county rally queen in 1989 and county chairman the following year.

 

As well as taking part in dairy stockjudging and floral art competitions, Eileen was a regular competitor in public speaking, debating and drama activities – all of which gave her the confidence for her later life.

 

Back on-farm, they have steadily built up their pedigree Llanllwni black and white bloodlines which date back to 1943.

 

Eileen says: “Some of those foundation families are still in the herd today and can be traced back to the Grove and many other leading herds of the era, while more recently, we have added Penrikka breeding.”

 

More than 90 per cent are home-bred animals and quite a large proportion are classified as Excellent and Very Good.

 

Their milking parlour is an eight-stall abreast unit which goes back to 1972, and both cows and heifers are cubicle housed, with all-year-round calving.

 

She says: “When I came here, we were milking 50, now we have 70, and as far as feeding goes, last year was the first time the clamp was empty, following a switch to all big bale silage.

 

“As to the future, depending on Owain’s commitment and the price for milk, we will be looking to keep more cows, extend cubicles and update the parlour. But in five years’ time, given our acreage, I doubt we will be milking many more than 100 cows.”

 

Read about how one first generation farmers leap of faith really paid off

Life experience

Before she married, Eileen worked in an office for 10 years as an accounts administrator in nearby Llanybydder, and while her introduction to the church came at an early age, its appeal did not fully materialise until much later.

 

She says: “My ‘other journey’ through life was one I had been thinking about for quite a long time, having been involved in church activities starting with Sunday school, becoming a church warden by the age of 18 and helping out during services.

 

“It was suggested I should offer myself to the Ministry, and I had my first interview at diocesan level in 2000, even though I did not possess such job requirements as A-levels, a university education or degree.

 

“I did, however, have the experience of the college of life, which basically is the best college anyone can have.”

 

Following further interviews and training, three years down the road she was accepted for ordination, first becoming a deacon before becoming ordained as a priest in June 2005.

 

Eileen says: “After serving in a roving role and acquiring my bachelor of theology degree, I took on the full-time Ministry of what then were my four vacant parishes.

 

“Having four parishes means my time has to be shared, but we do have services in all churches on the first and third Sundays of the month – two in the morning and two in the afternoon.

 

“I never write my sermons down, which means they can vary as the day goes by, and I also conduct funerals and weddings for chapel-goers if there are no chapel Ministers available locally.

 

“My honorary canonship came in April 2012 and I was made a full-time canon in 2014, with my role as diocesan adviser on rural matters entailing keeping the bishop and clergy up-to-date with matters affecting rural communities.

 

“All too often, priests who may be working in a rural area do not have a farming or rural background. They can contact me and in turn provide a listening ear to anyone in need.

 

“To say the least, bovine TB has been a huge issue, causing massive problems both emotionally and financially, especially in the three counties of Pembrokeshire, Ceredigion and Carmarthenshire I cover.

 

“I have seen first-hand the terrible emotional effects on farming families, especially in the case of one farmer who had to shoot 28 of his in-calf heifers on the farmyard, then one hour later to have to go back through them to make sure the calves were also dead, opening up the mothers and shooting her calf if they were not.

 

“The emotional effects are far greater than anyone could ever envisage, and I fear we are never going to be rid of this scenario unless we work together in agriculture and wildlife. It will not be achieved by culling cattle alone.

 

“Because it has become increasingly difficult to make ends meet, more and more farmers’ wives and partners are also having to go out to work these days, with isolation becoming another major concern for the industry.

 

“I do not see myself as being entirely a farmer or entirely a priest. Both of my roles work hand-in-hand as far as I am concerned.

“Neither role ties me down to working from nine to five and rarely does anyone want to speak to me first thing in the morning when I am milking, but my mobile phone is always in my boiler suit pocket.

 

“My philosophy is you have to be available 24/7 and I am, whether I be in my dog collar or work clothes.

 

“The one thing common to both roles, however, is the amount of paperwork which has to be completed, and as far as computerisation is concerned, let’s say trial and error has shown me how to make best use of it.

 

“My motto is the church is not only open on a Sunday, but it is there seven days a week.”

Tir Dewi

Tir Dewi

Eileen Davies is also a key member of the development group behind Tir Dewi, meaning David’s Land, a helpline service established in South West Wales to provide free bilingual support for farmers and their dependants.

 

With too many tragic stories emerging within the rural community, its primary purpose is to reach those most in need.

 

This month, it has been awarded Pump Priming Grant aid totalling £30,750 over three years from the Prince’s Countryside Fund.

 

The St David’s diocese-based initiative is being administered by a governance group of 10 professional volunteers and will be a support and signposting service, as well as offering advocacy advice.

 

There will also be financial and regulatory advice and mental health support available – services which will be sought from a register of professionals.

 

Chairing the group is another well-known figure in Welsh agricultural circles – Pembrokeshire farmer John Davies, of Cwmbetws, Eglwyswrw, who also chairs the Royal Welsh Agricultural Society’s board of management.

 

A non-denominational charity, Tir Dewi’s primary aim is to work for the benefit of those in need of a listening ear and provide a hand of direction to those within the agricultural industry who are finding modern day demands challenging, while sympathetically offering direction to solve problems facing each individual farmer.

 

The specific role will be a confidential listening ear, ready and able to help farmers in difficult times.

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