Northern Ireland

Life after Michelin: Ballymena factory worker finds hope in farm expansion

A Michelin employee walks past a life-size model of the company's mascot outside its Ballymena factory Image copyright Pacemaker
Image caption Michelin has been a cornerstone of the Ballymena economy for more than 40 years

"This town is dying on its knees," as one worker put it. "Take a walk around - charity shops and 'for sale' signs."

When the global tyre manufacturer Michelin announced in November last year that it would close its factory in Ballymena within three years, the reaction in the County Antrim town was one of shock, horror and devastation.

The news came little more than a year after cigarette maker JTI Gallaher said it would soon shut its plant less than five miles away.

The twin closures meant Ballymena, a long-time manufacturing powerhouse, would lose at least 1,600 jobs in just a few years.

Some of those employed by Michelin and JTI Gallaher have spent their entire working lives with the firms.

And it was telling that as they spilled out of the factories on the days of the respective announcements, workers told journalists waiting by the gates that they simply did not know where to turn to look for new jobs.

Optimism was in short supply.

Lambing

But now one Michelin employee is trying to put a catastrophic 2015 behind him, and two special deliveries have given him and his family hope for the future.

Alistair Kerr, from just outside Ballymena, is a technician in the Michelin factory - his father and brother are also employed by the firm.

Image caption Michelin's Ballymena factory will close its gates for a final time in 2018 as the tyre giant restructures its UK operation

He said "life changed after the news" of the plant's closure left him facing a jobless future.

A part-time sheep farmer, he has spent the Christmas and new year holiday lambing his 120 ewes.

And while it has been a busy time it has also provided a welcome break after a stressful two months at his full-time work.

This week, for the first time, his ewes have had not just one set of quadruplet lambs, but two - a rare occurrence - and all of them have survived the precarious first few days of their lives.

"For me," he says, "this is quite an achievement."

Rundown

With nothing to lose, he is planning to expand and diversify his farm and use it to support himself, his wife Lindsay, and their children Sam and Nicole, aged four and one.

Alistair acknowledges that farming is a "minefield" - prices fluctuate, margins are tight, and a reliable income is never guaranteed.

But other jobs are scarce and he sees this as his only option.

Image copyright Lindsay Kerr
Image caption Alistair's first ever sets of quadruplet lambs have given him hope after a testing two months

"I'm hoping I'll be one of the last ones to leave Michelin, but I don't really know - the rundown of staff starts in mid-2016," he says.

"In the Ballymena area, I don't see any real opportunities at the moment, so we've been pushed into a corner.

"Michelin has provided me with a good, steady income, but I have to find that elsewhere.

"I always had the farm while I worked in Michelin, but you never were depending on any money from it.

"But now I'm going to have to push on with the farming enterprise and try to make a full-time living off it."

Safer

By the time Michelin closes, he wants to have increased his flock of ewes to about 160, and a move into growing broiler chickens could give the family some security.

Alistair has been planning ahead, and he first met staff from the poultry producer Moy Park on his farm the day after JTI Gallaher said it was pulling out of its Ballymena operation in 2014.

Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption An expansion into poultry production will allow Alistair to move into farming on a full-time basis

"I told my wife afterwards it'd be great to get a move on because you never knew when my job might go," he says.

"We thought that if we were to get something going on the family farm it would have us in a safer position.

Now Alistair has secured a contract with Moy Park, and he has high hopes of beginning poultry production on his farm before autumn this year.

Worthwhile

He is feeling a swell of positivity, and believes he has made the right decision to move towards full-time farming, even as he watches others leave the trade.

"You just have to make the best of what you have, and the poultry production is allowing us to expand," he says.

"The finances and legalities are in place now and we're getting ready to start.

"For all the land I have, up until Moy Park came in I wouldn't have been able to leave something for my son that would've been worthwhile.

"I'm hoping as I learn new things and get to farm more efficiently there'll be something for him.

"Farming's my passion and hopefully it's the future for our family."

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