THE Early Retirement Scheme for farmers was an EU initiative to streamline farming and make it more efficient.
Farmers have a strong attachment to the job. They linger on, working into old age, delaying or denying entry of the next generation into the family business.
Traditionally, handing over the reins was gradual, and the patriarch was around, overseeing, advising on day-to-day matters.
With the ERS, that approach fundamentally changed. In one fell swoop, the older generation was cut out of the picture. To qualify for scheme payments, retiring farmers were not allowed to be active in running the farm.
“I was even afraid to put on my wellingtons that were outside the back door,” says Kevin Ryan, who participated in the ERS 14 years ago, aged 60.
When the scheme came into effect, he wasn’t prepared for the change, excluded from the dairy farm he had spent a lifetime working. “It was so strange to have my shoes on me every day. That was a bit of a shock.
“Another thing was the fact of walking the land when you felt like it, especially if there were cows calving. You’d love to be part of it and to share your experience. Experience has to be learned. When you’re young, you have to learn all these things, and then, when you’re older, to find yourself in a position where you’re not allowed to do them is very strange.”
Kevin’s farm straddles the Cork-Waterford border, with one half of the holding in each county, between Tallow, Co Waterford and Curraglass, Co Cork. Kevin’s son Frank took it over.
Frank runs it as a dairy farm, as his father did, and this, Kevin says, is satisfying: “I think that that’s lovely. Even now, driving into Frank’s home and looking at the cows around the house, that, to me, is really wonderful. That pleases me a lot.”
Another wrench for Kevin was saying goodbye to his dairy herd. “At the time (of the start of the ERS), Frank was very interested in contracting machinery. It was very sad for me, and for him, to see all the cows being sold. I had 80 cows, and I was very sad to see them all going out. I knew every cow; I knew their mothers and their daughters. It was almost a kind of family,” he says. Frank has since returned to dairy farming and restored the herd.
Kevin has changed his way of life. It was necessary, born of his sudden retirement.
“I really did have to reinvent myself,” says Kevin. “I found it fierce hard to be idle. We decided, here at home, that I’d go in for B&B and change my life system altogether.
“So I started a bed-and- breakfast. We have a 180-year-old house, and I thought to myself that we might as well let the house do a bit of work, now that the family have scattered.
“It was an amazing change to have my good clothes on every day. I was changing my shirt every morning when, at one time in my life, I would have only changed every couple of days.”
Even after 14 years of ‘civilian’ life, Kevin says he hasn’t adjusted to not having to get up early.
“I still find it hard to stay inside,” he says, “when I was so used to being out on the farm around 6:50am. That I find strange.”
His current B&B clients are dressage judges for the London Summer Olympic Games, who came to what they consider the home of horse-breeding and training. Kevin’s delighted they too are early risers. Despite the difficulties of the adjustments and the seemingly innate bond with the land, many farmers who have gone through the Early Retirement Scheme are content with their decision.
They have discovered that a sudden change is a new lease of life, and Kevin enjoys his current role, and the sense of freedom it has given him — a freedom to travel or pursue pastimes, or simply not to have to be there at 5:30pm on a Sunday evening to milk the cows.
In one point the ERS has fallen short: there was no system or structure in place to assist farmers in preparing for the big change in their lives. As one commentator from the Irish Rural Network said: “If you were working for the CIE, when you’re coming up to retirement, they’d point out the pitfalls, and they’d prepare you for it.”
From his own experience, Kevin says that this was a significant shortcoming: “We were definitely not told enough about that aspect of it,” he says.
“There should have been meetings to advise farmers. Farmers were being told as little as possible.”
As for the success of the ERS, it would seem that the results have been mixed.
It succeeded in allowing farmers to retire six years earlier than normal. The vast majority of candidates (10,000 out 13,000) took up the offer of early retirement between 1994 and 1999, and the last scheme finished in 2008.
However, a survey in 2007 showed that 51% of farmers were over 55 — something which serves to underline how people enjoy the land, and just don’t like to let go.
In Kevin’s case, he says it was the economic consideration that pushed him into opting for the ERS. There were other mitigating factors, such as the fact that his son Frank was keen to develop his machinery contracting business at the time.
There were health issues too, for Kevin. Thankfully, those problems aren’t an issue at the moment, but this collection of factors seems typical of the scenario for a lot of farmers who took part in the ERS.
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