Farmers are facing many real challenges, so the lack of optimism for the future is not surprising. News and analysis by Noel Baker.
FARMERS are increasingly gloomy about the future of the industry in general and about their own sectors within it.
The Irish Examiner/ ICMSA Farming in 2016 National Opinion Poll, conducted by Behaviour and Attitudes, shows optimism levels have declined in every sector, with the most precipitous drop in morale among dairy farmers.
While 60% of farmers polled expressed some level of optimism about the future of farming, that is down 12 percentage points compared with the figure for last year.
Just 27% of respondents overall said they were very optimistic about the future of farming, compared with 33% in 2014 and 2015 and 38% four years ago.
There was a similar drop among those who said they were slightly optimistic about the future, down to 33% from 39% last year.
A total of 26% of respondents said they were either slightly or very pessimistic about the future of farming, while 25% were either slightly or very pessimistic about the future of farming within their own sector.
While 60% of those polled expressed some level of optimism about their own sector, that is down 10 percentage points compared with the figure in 2015.
The scrapping of milk quotas resulted in expansion on some farms but the plummeting price of milk has impacted on positivity levels. The poll shows that while 64% of dairy farmers questioned are still optimistic about the future of their sector, that is down from 81% last year.
Pessimism is even more obvious in other sectors: just 57% of livestock/ cattle farmers are optimistic about the sector and 59% of tillage farmers felt the same way — down from 78% last year.
Younger farmers were more likely to have a more positive outlook about the farming industry and their own sector, while those over the age of 55 were the least likely to have a positive outlook.
FARMERS might not have a reputation for ebullience, but if the findings of the Irish Examiner/ICMSA opinion poll are a guide, they seem to have fewer reasons for doing a jig of delight than in previous years.
Just 27% of respondents said they were very optimistic about the future of farming, and the poll shows a fall in the percentage of farmers who are optimistic about their own sector.
It’s not all doom and gloom, but Kevin Hanrahan, agriculture economist with Teagasc, said pessimism was prevalent across the farming sector and that many are facing real challenges.
“The average beef farmer is not making a living, or enough to live on for a family,” said Dr Hanrahan. “Most of these farmers have at least one other income coming in, and often two.”
He said while other people faced with a non-profitmaking enterprise would simply switch attention to something else, farmers have “a very big aversion” to giving up farming, even though turning a profit is likely to remain difficult.
Expansion is most likely on dairy farms or on atypically large dry stock cattle, sheep, or tillage holdings.
“The era when you could have a comparable standard of living to your non-farming neighbour is gone, apart from dairy farmers,” he said.
ICMSA president John Comer , said farmers were by nature resilient and optimistic in an environment where every working day is an investment in the future. However, he said many farmers — and particularly the dairy farmers which form the ICMSA membership — “have reached the end of their patience”.
“The steady downturn in optimism and morale is purely a function of the dire situation that has seen milk price five to six cents below the cost of production for the last 16 months, with signs only emerging now of a climb back towards breakeven,” he said.
“It’s very difficult to feel optimistic about your future when you’re milking a herd of cows twice a day and losing money twice a day for months on end while you know — for an absolute, demonstrable fact — everyone else involved in getting your milk to the consumer from the farm gate onwards is making a nice hefty margin.
“How is that meant to engender optimism?
“How is that meant to signify any unity or sense that we, the Irish agri-food sector, are in this together?”
Dr Hanrahan said one possibility is that Irish agriculture enters a period of between 20 and 30 years in which people who have gone to college and entered an off-farm career retain land and use it for a low-labour enterprise such as dry stock cattle — people who still think of themselves as farmers but whose primary income comes from non-farming work.
“That is more likely to be the phase that we will see more of,” he added, “rather than people giving up.”
He believes the Government is backing growing areas of farming, namely the dairy sector, with support for long-term leases and other mechanisms. However, he said that efforts to “shorten the supply chain” would not necessarily work in a situation where 90% of beef produced in Ireland is exported.
Similarly, he said asking farmers in traditional sectors to diversify into market gardens or agri-tourism requires them to have a different set of skills and is not an easy transition.
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