Operators of small farms 'feel more socially isolated as they age'

A new report has found that small farmers feel more socially isolated as they age, and that an increasing number are now more fearful in their own homes.

The report, entitled ‘The Sustainability of Small Farming in Ireland’, found that the majority of those surveyed reported relatively easy access to Garda stations, post offices and medical services, but with age this access to services declined.

According to the report: “Despite one in four operators of small farms living alone, the majority of farmers meet persons outside of their household on a daily basis, so for most small farmers there does not seem to be a risk of isolation. Risk of isolation increases with age; just 39% of farmers over the age of 60 meet people outside of their household on a daily basis compared to 84% of younger farmers.”

The report also found that 57% of small farmers reported a deterioration in their sense of security in their home in the last five years, increasing to three-quarters of farmers over 60 years of age.

Of those surveyed, 8% said it had deteriorated considerably, while 33% felt that there has been no change in their sense of security.

The majority of farmers report no change in their access to services over the last five years, according to the report, but 40% of respondents reported a deterioration in access to Garda stations and banks over the last five years. More than half of those surveyed reported limited access to public transport.

Despite the difficulties, such as low levels of profitability and high incidence of economic vulnerability, the report found that 85% of small farmers plan to continue farming and just 7% are seeking employment off the farm — a finding it said was “not surprising” given the age profile of those involved.

The findings are separate from the Teagasc National Farm Survey and this is the first time Teagasc has analysed farms of this size in this way.

Data was taken from 180 farms and from the CSO, meaning the sample is representative of 35,000 cattle and sheep farms nationally.

The report defined small farms as having a standard output of €8,000 per year or less — the equivalent of six dairy cows, six hectares of wheat or 14 suckler cows. Many are part-time operations, but as recently as 2013 small farms accounted for 37% of all farms nationally.

It also found one-third of those working on small farms are aged 65 and over.

In terms of economic viability, the report found that small farms are less efficient and have a greater dependence on direct payments and that 88% have a source of off-farm income. It found the proportion of small farms classified as economically vulnerable to be “extremely high” at 50%.

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