Kieran Coughlan: Ploughing Championships a sweet shop with empty pockets for many farmers

This week’s Ploughing Championships are the highlight of the farming calendar for many.
Kieran Coughlan: Ploughing Championships a sweet shop with empty pockets for many farmers

The timing of the event suits almost everyone.

For most tillage farmers, the harvest has been completed.

For contractors, this time of year can often be a relatively quiet time, with silage completed.

For farmers, the winter workload has not yet started, with livestock still out on the land.

The display of ultra-modern farm equipment and top-end technology is impressive.

However, the day out is the equivalent to visiting a sweet shop with empty pockets, for many farmers.

This year’s Irish Examiner ICMSA poll has highlighted how many of Ireland’s farm families are reliant on off-farm income, with 53% of the farm families in the survey having some form of off-farm income.

Looking further into the figures, for younger farm families, 65% of the cohort aged between 35 and 44 rely on some off-farm income.

As could be expected, farmers in in the 65 plus age bracket have the lowest level of off-farm income.

It’s interesting that the number of farmers themselves who have off-farm income continues to increase, from 28% of all farmers in 2013 to 36% in 2015.

These results are consistent with data published by Teagasc in their “Situation and Outlook” report last July, which identified a drop in family farm income of 15%.

More farmers earning off-farm income is a symptom of the underlying lack of viability amongst Ireland’s farmers.

Teagasc’s publication on the viability of the Irish farming sector in 2014 suggested that just 38% of farms were financially viable — that is, able to make enough profit to provide a return for labour, while allowing for some reinvestment.

Projecting forward into 2015, with reduced milk and grain prices, it is likely that these figures will be eroded further.

Reliance on off-farm income by farm families increased consistently from about 40%, to near 60% in the boom period, when it was rudely interrupted by the bust.

In 2008, 25% of off-farm employment by farmers was in the construction sector, and many part-time farmers were laid off in the bust.

On a positive note, the renewed increase in off-farm employment amongst farmers can be taken as a measure of the growth in opportunities.

But ICMSA President John Comer says it is a disgraceful reality that many of Ireland’s farmers cannot make a living from their farming alone.

For our policy makers seeking expansion of agricultural output, for expansion’s sake, the continued deterioration in farm viability requires them to rethink our economic strategy.

Is it desirable and even somewhat more politically acceptable to have a nation of part-time farmers rather that address the underlying issues of insufficiency of farm scale, land stagnation, and the absence of a meaningful retirement regime for older farmers?

Policy makers at the Ploughing can also take their cue from the many individuals occupying the trade stands who are farmers who formed companies, born out of necessity to diversify and obtain off-farm income.

They show how resourceful Ireland’s farmers can be at developing successful businesses.

This resourcefulness should be encouraged and developed, exploiting the potential for a broader development of our rural economy.

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