Finger on the financial pulse at Mogeely

The National Ploughing Championships is a good place to test the economic pulse of farmers, reports Joe Murray and Stephen Cadogan.

ONE of the many indicators of farmers' financial health at the Ploughing Championships at Mogeely in Co Cork was the busy queue at the Irish Examiner marquee, when 500 seats for a personal finance advice session by financial pundit Eddie Hobbs were snapped up.

The star of TV has been warning of fast rising consumer debt levels in Ireland, predicting a downward trend in consumer spending, because people just can't borrow any more.

"You hit a brick wall when your lifestyle debt hits 1 to 1.5 times your income," he told listeners at the Ploughing.

Are farm families any better at controlling their expenditure? The strong interest in what Hobbs had to say pointed to financial problems also in the largely agricultural audience.

Not far away, the danger of runaway lifestyles was being confirmed the people who know more about farmers' financial affairs than anyone else - their accountants.

On the Irish Farm Accounts Co-Op stand at the Ploughing, Pat Comerford said, "The cost of living has spiralled in the last 10 years, and farm incomes have not kept in line with it. So a lot of people are borrowing to maintain a lifestyle and farming won't be able to sustain that."

Does that mean that those people are borrowing dangerously? "They're just trying to have a lifestyle that is comparable with other people in their age group. A lot of those people are working much harder just to stand still."

"Twenty years ago, the price of cattle, the price of grain and the price of milk were fairly similar to today, but the costs have multiplied several times."

Pat Comerford, who works in the Kilkenny office of IFAC, a part of the country with a solid record of good farming, says older people are less affected.

"They all lived at a time when there was less comfort in their lives. They can manage better without the things that everyone in the younger age groups has nowadays."

Does that suggest an exodus of younger people out of farming in the coming years?

"Not so much an exodus as the lack of an influx of young people, because they don't see the cash in it at the end of the week. A lot of the people who have taken up the Farm Retirement Scheme did not have a son or a daughter to follow them on the farm."

"A big proportion of the people taking over farms now have a PAYE income as well."

Is any group of farmers doing better than in the past?

According to Pat, there is one group.

"I notice that farmers who can sell direct to the customer are making an awful lot more money on similar sized farms than farmers who are selling their milk, their beef or their sheep in the traditional way."

Not every farmer has the opportunity to by-pass the middlemen. But when a man who spends his time looking at every type of farm account makes a statement based on those accounts, he should be listened to.

How does he see the general condition of farmers, as they head into a new era dominated by the post Fischler CAP regime?

"I would describe it as a mild depression across the whole industry, especially for the 30 to 45 years age group.

Paddy Horgan is Agri Business Manager with ACC Bank. He has been dealing with farmers since 1973 and has seen good times and bad times for farmers and for the bank.

He was also at the Ploughing.

"I have seen five or six periods of good times and the same number of periods of bad times - it goes in cycles."

How does he see the situation of farmers at present?

"We tend to talk about dairying, but the beef situation is bigger, and affects far more people. We have to develop a market where there's a profit for the producer, a profit for the processor and a profit for the retailer."

"That's not the situation at the moment, because so many producers are not getting a profit."

"Producers are not going to produce unless they see a profit, and with the new Single Farm Payment system, they don't have to."

Lending is very active, according to the ACC man, but is very specific.

The bad memories of the early eighties were a learning experience for everybody. Today's farming borrowers have had a long history of loans and repayments. That makes to-days lending very different, says Paddy Horgan.

"It is easier than it used be to pick out the entrepreneur, the farmer who has made progress, made the right decisions and done things well. What we are doing as an agri unit within the bank is to pick the winners for the next 10 years."

"In dairying, we have to forecast the net margin per litre over the period of the loan. In livestock, we have to look at size of the farm as well as the efficiency. We'd like to see a drystock farmer with two hundred acres or more. We can give him money to scale up his business without buying land. He can rent land, or rent sheds, provided he has a good base to start with."

What are farmers borrowing for?

"At the moment about 20% of the lending is going into land purchase, and about 15% is going into foreign property investment. The other 65% is made up of a mix of farm investments. Some farmers are hoping to get more milk quota and are actually doing their dairy and building up-grades in advance. Other farmers are streamlining their yards and buildings to make part-time farming less laborious."

What sort of loan would be typical for land purchase?

"A lot of them would be in the €200,000 to €500,000 range, but very often there might be other elements, like the sale of sites, or part of the purchased land, or a house or even part of the existing farm."

"In the past, all those arrangements would have had to be tightly agreed, but nowadays lenders will rely heavily on the record of the client."

"A good farmer is a good businessman. He'll rock and roll with the markets and the opportunities and he'll change to meet the circumstances. The lender has to make a judgement that he is capable of doing that. Even if times are not so good, that farmer is going to go ahead, make his changes, get his profit and meet his repayments."

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