Stemming the exodus: the key factors that could keep farmers in the game

Michael Brady.

Agricultural Consultant and managing director at Brady Group: Agricultural Consultants & Land Agents.

1st published in The Farming Independent 17 November 2022

Farmers the world over have a reputation for being robust and resilient.

I admire our farmers in Ireland who cope with issues on a day to day basic such as price fluctuation, changing weather patterns, new legislation, labour scarcity just to name a few.

However, on a recent trip to Zimbabwe where commercial (white) farmers were forcibly removed from their land in the 2000’s the definition of robust and resilient framers is elevated to a much higher level. The commercial farmers who remain have no title to the land they farm, cannot get bank finance, have limited agribusiness service backup, yet they battle on and survive.

When Ireland gained independence from Britain in 1921 there were over 360,000 farmers in the state, one hundred years later there are approximately 140,000 farmers therefore we have lost over 6 farmers a day since the foundation of the state. If we were to keep going at this rate there would be no farmers in Ireland by 2085. Clearly lots of farmers have decided not to get out of bed in the last 100 years in Ireland, what will happen in the next 100 years?

There are many types of farmer, one can categorise farmers into arable, beef, sheep, dairy, pig, poultry and forestry farmers, then there are big farmers and small farmers, fulltime and part-time, organic and conventional, grass based or confinement, irrigated or non-irrigated, family or factory, the list goes on.

For me the two most relevant categories of farmers to examine when projecting the future of Irish farming are a)fulltime commercial farmers and b) hobby or part-time farmers.

What factors will influence the survival of today’s 140,000 farmers in our state over the next 100 years:

Love of the Land
Real farmers have an innate love of the land. John B. Keane’s portrayal of the Bull McCabe in the play ‘The Field’ typifies this type of farmer. Pride in the land and the love of farming surpasses all other reasons to live. These emotions have been handed from generation to generation on many Irish holdings and have become tradition, often boosted by the fear or failure or keeping up with the neighbours. If these farmers are steered in the right direction there will be no fear for their survival, it will not matter which enterprise they farm, whether they are big or small, fulltime or part-time they will survive and many will prosper.

Succession is a real issue affecting the survival of many farm businesses in Ireland. The majority of family farmers are sole traders, therefore for a farm business to survive it is handed onto the next generation which traditionally was the eldest son. Nowadays I often meet farmers running a full-time, commercially viable farm businesses but none of their children or extended family are interested in taking over the business, of course they all have their eye on inheriting the land but is this a burden or a blessing to the parents? To me it is neither, if the children are interested great, embrace it and decided who will continue the family business but equally, if none of the family interested, plan the winding down of the business or continuing it by entering a partnership with a third party. In any case successors or the lack of will have a major influence on the number of farmers into the future.

Profit is king or it’s not all about money, which popular saying is true when it comes to the survival of Irish farm businesses? In fact, both sayings are very relevant to the survival of Irish farms. Of course the fulltime commercial farmers need profit to survive and prosper. Dairy farmers traditionally have been able to generate good net profit per hectare excluding direct payments. Our climate and low cost of production are up there with the best in the world, they realty is you don’t have to be a very good dairy farmer to survive in Ireland, the average 100 cow dairy herd will generate a net profit of over €80,000 per annum most families will survive, not prosper on this income. In contrast the other enterprises struggle to generate profit margins especially if direct payments are diminished or removed. This is where the hobby farmer comes into play, the family beef, sheep, arable or small dairy enterprise supplemented with a good off farm job by one or both spouses can provide a viable and enjoyable lifestyle choice for many. Good motorways and the rollout of better broadband and remote working will surely augment such lifestyle choices and boost the survival of low margin but labour efficient farm businesses. Tax efficient, subsidised hobby farming maximising the income and minimising the work will work for these farmers.

Education, Research, Training and Advice
In Ireland farmers have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to education, research, training and advice. This gives us an added edge when it comes to the survival of farm businesses into the future. In other countries farm businesses fail due to a lack of advice and guidance into systems and methods of farming, we have this information in abundance with the whole industry joined from farm to fork.

The above are just some of the factors which will affect how many farmers will continue to farm in Ireland into the future. However, one thing we do know for sure that regardless of how many obstacles or barriers are presented along the way, farmers will rise to the challenge and evolve to cope, survive and even proper.