Kieran Coughlan: What would Ireland look like without family farming?

2014 was the international year of family farming, as proclaimed by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations.
Kieran Coughlan: What would Ireland look like without family farming?

Ireland shares its family farming tradition with most other countries.

The United Nations estimates that 90% of the world’s farms are run by an individual or their family, providing a livelihood for 500m people and producing 80% of the world’s food.

Although the average size of Ireland’s farms seems small, at about 37 hectares, this is relatively large by EU and world standards.

The average EU farm is only about 16 hectares, while from a worldwide perspective, nearly 80% of farms are less than five hectares.

Farming can be divided into subsistence type farming (mainly designed to produce food and produce for the owner), and larger commercial scale farming, where the farm is a financially viable unit capable of generating an income for the owner.

The reality for much of Ireland’s farms is that less than half are actually economically viable on their own.

Teagasc assessed the viability of the Irish farming sector as recently as 2015, based on the parameter that the farm business is deemed to be economically viable if the family farm income is sufficient to provide a 5% return on the capital invested in non-land assets, plus to remunerate family labour at the minimum agricultural wage, which is assumed to be €19,167 per labour unit.

For 2015, Teagasc estimated that a little over one-third of Irish farms were economically viable (capable of remunerating the labour employed at minimum wages, plus providing a 5% return on capital invested).

Another third of farms were classed as vulnerable, and the rest were treated as being sustainable only by reason of off-farm employment.

On the ground, this is reflected in the reality of many part-time farmers investing heavily in farm buildings and machinery which could not be afforded but for the off-farm job.

Going back to the concept of family farming, on our home farm, events of this past week really drilled home what family farming means.

My father, a full-time farmer who has been farming all his life, had a temporary health setback which left me in charge of his farm.

It was a revelation to me, that I was the final backstop.

Should anything happen to me, drastic changes would be needed which could potentially involve selling all farm animals.

For all of my life, there have been other family members farming full-time, and going back for the past three or four generations, there had always been multiple family members farming alongside each other at the same time.

Now, looking across our parish, family farming by multiple family members is replicated time and time again — a great safety net for those involved.

In the case of ill health, the birth of a child, funerals or other significant events in life, there was always a family member to call on.

Many farmers of an older generation worked alongside their brother, sisters, spouses, parents of children.

Looking at the shape of Irish farming, it would seem that the loss of the family farming model could be the death knell for full-time farming. On a busy dairy farm in the peak calving season, any setback for the farmer can result in the whole operation coming to a calamitous end.

Meanwhile, the underlying lack of profitability of farming results in fewer and fewer new full-time farmers.

In years gone by, a farmer had the capacity to expand to such a degree that two or even three successors could be set up. Now, for mainstream farming, the reality is that many of Ireland’s future farmers will need some off-farm income just to survive.

For dairy farmers, commentators suggest that the most profitable dairy farms are one-person, 70-90 cow operations. But there is merit in considering whether scaling up can solve potential issues, by having one or more employees on hand to take over in an emergency.

But is it profitable in the first instance to expand to such a level?

Farm partnerships between neighbours may have a bigger role to play in the future, sharing the workload, removing duplication, providing each other with a backstop in the event of unforeseen circumstances.

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