Analysis: We need to find a clearly defined role for part-time farmers

There are approximately 139,000 farmers in the Republic of Ireland.

However, over 50pc farm on a part-time basis – that is either the farmer or spouse work off-farm to supplement household income.

Is this good or bad for Irish agriculture?

What is our policy in respect of part-time farmers, what signals are being given about their future in the industry?

The vast majority of part-time farmers have beef and sheep enterprises – yes, there are part-time dairy and tillage farmers too, but they are in the minority.

The consistently low annual income from beef, sheep and tillage farming in Ireland necessitates off-farm income to provide an acceptable standard of living for these farm families. When the family farm income on these lands is examined in detail it is essentially a direct payment harvesting exercise as the actual farming activity loses money.

In most cases it eats into the direct payments (Basic Payment Scheme, GLAS and ANC).

This often leads to a rather feckless attitude to the actual farming activity – with low stocking rates and poor uptake of technical advice. I describe it as ‘tax efficient subsidised hobby farming where one maximises the subsidies and minimises the work’. This is the reason we see so much of our grassland under-stocked and under-utilised throughout the countryside. It is hard to blame part-time farmers for going down this route – why would you stock up and keep more cattle and sheep just to lose more money? In any case, they probably have to go and beat the traffic to get to the day job on time.

The well-oiled profitable dairy machine will be back at on track in 2017 with rising milk prices – yes, dairying is a profitable farming enterprise – but it is not conducive to part-time farming, even with robots milking the cows.

Have we gone too far out on a limb placing all our bets on low-cost dairying for the future of Irish agriculture?

Whether you have inherited the land, married into the land or purchased the land, it is interesting as to what motivates people to farm on a part-time basis.

There are three types of part-time farmer:

1. Longing to be a full-time farmer

This farmer has most likely inherited a farm too small to provide a good annual family income.

The farmer is motivated to work off-farm, often all the hours God has given, to grow the farm business to a size which will enable the nirvana of farming full-time and of course giving up the off-farm job.

Such farmers are highly motivated and they soak up knowledge and new technology like a sponge. These part-time farmers are very valuable to the industry.

2. Maintaining the Family Tradition farmer

This farmer again most likely has inherited a farm, but they are really only coasting along farming against their will because they are not brave enough to exit farming by leasing it out or selling it.

Everything is done at the last minute or not at all.

The cost of a penalty for non-compliance is weighed up versus the cost and hassle of carrying out necessary tasks – the main goal here is to do the absolute minimum.

These part-time farmers are a burden on the industry.

3. The Hobby or Lifestyle farmer

The final category may have inherited or purchased the land but they genuinely enjoy part-time farming.

Income or profitability is never the top priority, it’s a means of getting away from the day job, a good environment to raise children or simply just a status symbol.

They are good custodians of the land and are very often open to receiving knowledge and new technology.

These farmers are often the best proponents of agri-environmental schemes.

These part-time farmers will always exist even if there were no direct payments, they must be included in any future agricultural policy.

The recently improved income tax benefits from long-term leasing of agricultural land has caused many to question continuing the vocation of part-time farming.

This is a clear signal from Government to part-time farmers to exit the industry.

Yes, we have small farm size and fragmented holdings in Ireland, and this measure is for the good of the industry.

However, we must also recognise the part-time farmers who choose to continue to farm and find a way to include them in the future of our industry.