Farming survey: Numbers involved in dairy sector continue to decline

As ever, the 2017 Irish Examiner/ICMSA farming survey provides an invaluable and interesting snapshot of current attitudes and opinions, writes Larry Ryan.

James Coffey, Lecarrow, Co Roscommon, with his horses Kruger and Johnny at the National Ploughing Championships. Pictures: Dan Linehan

We see reassuringly consistent data about farmers and their holdings, but also subtle attitudinal shifts in response to the changing social and economic climate.

It is interesting to note that the numbers with some involvement in the dairy sector have continued to decline, with just a quarter now milking cows.

As has been the pattern in the past, the bulk of dairy farmers are aged between 30 and 50, with most older farmers opting to predominantly focus on livestock or tillage.

However, within the dairy sector there is evidence of consolidation and greater harmony with co-ops and milk supply arrangements than before.

Few would now like to see their own co-op being subsumed by a larger organisation and quite a number would opt to settle for a fixed milk price to guarantee greater stability of earnings into the future.

We have also noted a marginal contraction in average acreage and a related reduction in the average number of livestock on farms. The change in the structure of farm ownership hasn’t resulted in an increase in average farm holdings: The “typical” farmer doesn’t seem to be increasing the size of their holdings, based on this study.

Indeed, the proportion indicating that their level of indebtedness is too high has slightly reduced in 2017 — just 21% of farmers are of this view, down from 24% last year.

As in many areas of society Brexit remains the predominant issue. Just over a year after the UK’s vote to leave the EU, about a quarter of farmers believe that it has already impacted, while two out of three feel that it will have a definite impact in the future.

Fully seven in eight farmers fear and anticipate a Brexit impact, although as is the case with most in Ireland, its precise nature and severity is unknown.

The general view is that the Government is insufficiently prepared, with most suggesting a Brexit minister should be appointed.

The other big international concern over the past 12 months has been US President Donald Trump.

Farmers, no less than others in Irish society, remain perplexed by his behaviour and pronouncements.

Turning to politics closer to home, farmers remain a highly active and engaged group, with nine out of ten indicating that they were voters at the last election. As such, they are more active than many other groups, although their perspective has changed somewhat less, with the bulk of farmers remaining committed to two leading parties and most others attracting only limited interest.

Roughly 40% of farmers say that they would vote for Fine Gael if there were an election tomorrow, in comparison with just 25% suggesting they would support Fianna Fáil.

This does represent a substantial improvement in the Fine Gael vote over the level recorded in 2016, albeit very much in line with longer-term average support.

That said, the proportion now supporting the party is five percentage points lower than the 45% who claim to have voted for Fine Gael at the last general election.

An interesting conundrum emerges in the context of Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. He is the most highly rated of the party leaders from the perspective of all farmers, but he remains the candidate that fewer would have selected, had they been given a choice between himself or Simon Coveney as Fine Gael party leader.

Whether this is to do with conservatism, the greater rural or agricultural credentials of Mr Coveney, or some other factor is not apparent, and it will be interesting to watch Mr Varadkar’s interaction with the farming community over the coming months.

Turning to global political and social themes, we see that farmers again differ from Mr Trump, strongly believing that climate change is real and with a majority believing that farming is a negative contributor.

Nonetheless, most are of the view that they have personally implemented measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, although whether this extends beyond participating in subsidised schemes is unknown.

There is some evidence of a modest return to spending by the farming community, although the magnitude of increases seem somewhat limited.

Encouragingly, a slight majority of farmers suggest the economic recovery has benefited them and their families, reflecting a more positive perspective of the current environment than is indicated by wider general public surveys.

Nonetheless, while we see a return to confidence among farmers, with three out of four broadly positive, the numbers who are very optimistic have continued to decline, standing now at just a fifth — half the level recorded when this research series started in 2013.

This presumably reflects that some buoyancy has returned to the sector, but that the potential upside is more limited than it had then been perceived before.

Irish Examiner ICMSA farming poll

The Irish Examiner ICMSA farming poll was designed to provide a robust and accurate snapshot of the attitudes, beliefs and opinions of the farming community about a range of issues, both farming and social. The survey involved 569 interviews with farm dwelling adults in the Republic of Ireland.

Fieldwork was completed by Behaviour & Attitudes over a two-week period between August 13 and 27, with interviewing undertaken onsite by Behaviour & Attitudes interviewers across eight agricultural shows. The sample size is large and the data has a statistical margin of error of +/-4%.

The sampling approach involves a random probability method, with interviews being undertaken with attendees provided they worked and/or lived on a farm. 429 interviews were with farmers themselves, 31 with non family, farm employees, and the balance with spouses (66), most of whom -5 out of 6- personally work on the family farm as well.

All data is copyrighted by the Irish Examiner and Behaviour & Attitudes and should be attributed to this source where quoted.

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