What brings nearly 230,000 people from all over Ireland to an agricultural event, braving traffic jams and the weather?
Last week’s new record attendance at the Ploughing Championships was no doubt due in part to a central location, mostly fine weather, and the surrounding road and rail network which minimised traffic delays.
However, the Irish Examiner/ICMSA farming survey findings published last week highlighted another important attraction — the buoyancy and positivity of the farming sector.
In a week when economists said Ireland is worth minus €77bn, you could visit the Ploughing in Co Laois, and see a sector going about its business optimistically, with an industrious buzz in the air.
Many who visited the event at Ratheniska found it an uplifting escape from bad news of the economy. And it was a good place to bring their children, for a look at a sector with an assured future. Many rural schools wisely give a day off to allow pupils to attend.
Despite the fodder crisis which lasted into the summer, farmers were in good form at Ratheniska. Some exhibitors on the 1,300 trade stands reported increases of up to 80% in enquiries, and those selling food said sales were up 40-50% compared to previous Ploughings. The Ploughing was a great PR exercise for Irish agriculture, impressing the horde of politicians who attended, and more than 300 members of the media, including many from overseas.
Taoiseach Enda Kenny noted the “distinct sense of confidence”, which he attributed in part at least to the prospect of milk quotas being abolished.
He described the Ploughing as a great showcase of modern Ireland.
A Chinese delegation of pig meat company representatives and journalists, guests of Bord Bia, said the event was very impressive, and showed how important agriculture is to Ireland.
Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams said the Ploughing is an example of the drive and positivity in rural Ireland, and what is best about rural values, the meitheal and cabhair na gcomharsan, referring to the huge voluntary effort which goes into running the event.
There was fair reward for the efforts of the National Ploughing Association (NPA), with entrance fees and exhibitor charges expected to total more than €4.5m.
But NPA managing director Anna May McHugh said it cost about €4m to stage, and continuing profitability is necessary because of the event’s vulnerability to bad weather.
Perhaps the real reward for this Co Laois woman is the estimated €40m worth of the event to the local economy, with accommodation providers throughout the midlands saying their beds are already being booked up for next year’s Ploughing at the same venue.
Described last week by the President, Michael D Higgins, as “the great heroine of Irish ploughing”, she sensibly says the NPA do not want to grow the event any further because it is at its limit, and she ruled out extending it to four days.
That sums up the appeal of Irish agriculture which attracts people to the Ploughing — optimistic, but with its feet firmly on the ground.