Farming: harvest is plentiful but the labourers are few

The eighth successive year of growth in Irish agri-food exports was confirmed yesterday, to reach a record level of €13.5 billion in 2017, copper-fastens the sector’s standing as Ireland’s largest indigenous productive sector, and one making an important contribution to Ireland’s economic recovery, writes Stephen Cadogan. 

But are enough of the financial returns coming back to the farmers and fishermen who provide the raw material for these exports, and for employment of more than 300,000 in food and drink?

If they were, surely the emerging labour shortage on farms would not be the major threat that it is.

There is an increasing demand for skilled farm workers, particularly in the dairy sector, to manage the dairy herd expansion which helped boost the value of Irish dairy exports 19% in 2017.

As dairy farmers face into the busy spring period, they face a heavy work burden, often 80 or 90 hours a week, with no-one available for hire to carry some of the work load.

Some will point to the average €90,000 income for dairy farms in 2017, and say there is plenty money to pay for extra staff.

Unfortunately, the milk price farmers depend on for income is notoriously volatile, swinging from 25c in 2007 to 45c in 2008, back to 22c in 2009, rising to over 40c in 2011, falling to 30c in 2012, reaching about 47c in 2013, and slumping to 24c late in 2016 before climbing to the mid-40s last year.

Industry and government efforts are under way to rectify the skills shortage, including attracting unemployed people off the live register.

But the challenge cannot be underestimated of training people to milk cows, when much of the dairy farm work is only seasonal, around the calving and breeding time.

Irish organisations are even looking to New Zealand, on the other side of the world, for workers.

There has been a dramatic increase in demand for dairy farm employees, full time or part time, mainly because of increasing herd size.

In 2005, only just over 1,000 farmers had 100 cows or more.

In 2016, about 4,200 farmers were milking more than 100 cows, and their average herd size was 155 cows.

Having boosted national milk production an estimated 8% in 2017, dairy farmers will this year attempt to keep the industry’s momentum moving ahead by lifting milk production an extra 4%.

Dairy cow numbers are on course to go from 1.4 million this year to 1.6m by 2025.

The one bright spot is that for the first time in 40 years, the number of dairy farmers in Ireland has stabilised.

In 2010, there were just over 18,000 dairy farmers in Ireland, and in 2016 this was still the case.

The number of new entrants getting into dairy farming is happening at a similar rate to farmers choosing to retire.

But over 6,000 people would need to enter Irish dairying, to facilitate the predicted expansion to 1.4m dairy cows by 2025..

It is proving very hard to get these extra people to work on dairy farms.

IFA is pressing the government to allow work permits for a supervised dairy farm staff programme for people to come from outside the EU.

Dairy farmers must play their part by ensuring that careers in dairying are attractive, even if that is a big ask for sole traders without the human resources departments big companies use to attract workers.

They need urgent help if dairy is to remain our number one exporting sector, after accounting for one third of all food and drink export in 2017, in value terms.

Expanding the raw material base for that growth is on a collision course with falling availability of labour on farms.

More and farmers say that dairy farming is now a young man’s game.

It has changed dramatically and will continue to do so,

Farming at larger scales requires a different approach.

Unless dairy farming can offer an attractive lifestyle, it will run out of bodies to do the work.

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