Article on James published in Irish News (12/01/2015)
HE may be happiest in wellies inspecting his sheep and cows but prizewinning Toomebridge farmer James Alexander is keeping the farming wheels turning in a different sense – exporting tractors all the way to Thailand.
The busy farmer and father-of-four has recently expanded his tractor export business to the east Asian country after previously securing markets in Spain, Bulgaria, Norway, Poland, Sweden and South America.
“Our business, like every business, is constantly changing,” he said.
“Our export market has continually grown and at present 40 per cent of our tractor sales are exported outside of the UK and Ireland to countries all over the world.”
His father, Nelson, started selling tractors and second-hand machinery locally 40 years ago and is still very much the ‘boss’ of the business which has its own website – Alexandertractors.com – comprising sections entitled ‘Everything you ever wanted to know about tractors but were too scared to ask’ and ‘When Tractors Get Blinged’.
Surprisingly, the Thailand contract – equating to over 30 new high performance vehicles ranging in price from £7,000 up to £20,000 – happened by chance.
“A Thai dealer representative had been in Northern Ireland when he drove past and just called in one day,” James said.
“He bought six tractors on the spot.”
That was definitely a good day for business, but, as James pointed out ahead of his second outing on popular UTV programme, Rare Breed which aired last night, farming generally is full of unpredictable highs and lows.
“The whole agricultural scene in Northern Ireland is bad at the minute – grain, potatoes, beef and sheep – but I didn’t want to come across as another ‘crying farmer’ on the programme, so I didn’t talk about the problems much,” he said.
“But now it is the toughest it has been for 40 years, mainly due to EU regulations, rising production costs with prices for farmers not keeping pace, and also because the euro is so weak against sterling.
“I really don’t see farming remaining sustainable in the long-term against such obstacles. Sadly, I don’t even see my own children being able to carry on the farming tradition first started by their great grandfather in the glens of Antrim.”
Despite the difficulties, however, he remains “passionate” about his 700-acre holding, with the highlight always the production of quality livestock.
“I have won prizes at every major show in Northern Ireland so that brings a deep sense of satisfaction. I am definitely happiest in the fields with the animals – that keeps me sane when there is something to worry about.”
And farm safety is always well up his worry list given the high incidence of accidents on farms involving children.
“I think there is a risk of complacency but farm safety is something my wife Ruth and I always take very seriously,” he said.
“With farming being such a full-on lifestyle, it is also important to take time out to spend with your family.
“When you’re involved with calving all year round it’s quite stressful, but we have now sold a large proportion of cows to focus on breeding heifers and pedigree herds.
“It has freed up more time – although with a new baby due in February, I think I am going to kept extra busy anyway.”
James, who debuted on last year’s series, says he enjoyed taking part in the new programmes, but harbours no illusions about bagging a permanent spot in front of the cameras.
“I think a lot of the time farmers are misunderstood and my main aim was to get across the long hours and the work involved in running a farm – and the risks with everything from the weather to animals suddenly dying,” he added.
“But I had to always be aware of my speech as I talk too fast and I mumble, so I don’t think I’d make a suitable TV star – I’m happy just to be a ‘rare breed’.”
The popular fly-on-the-wall series – which attracted an average audience of 207,000 viewers per episode last year – features five Northern Ireland farming families and will be screened on UTV each Monday evening for the next 11 weeks.