Farming is a difficult, dangerous occupation. For those involved, developing a family business and working outdoors can be hugely satisfying, with the added bonus of being part of a tightly knit community. This optimistic face of Irish farming, with its many social interconnections, has been on display at the National Ploughing Championships at Screggan, Tullamore, Co Offaly.
The arrival of Storm Ali, which affected electricity supplies across the country and forced the second day of the show to be abandoned, reflected the weather-dependent nature of farming. The opening day attracted nearly 100,000 people to the largest outdoor farming event in Europe. The last time “the ploughing” was disrupted in this fashion – more than 50 years ago – heavy snow forced the postponement.
Climatic events have been particularly challenging this year. Heavy February snowfalls and Storm Ophelia generated a long and unusually cold spring before this gave way to a hot and extremely dry summer. Soil moisture content plummeted in some areas, affecting grass growth, and a shortage of winter fodder now threatens. In the south and east, dairy farmers had to feed their animals with expensive concentrates and the State agency Teagasc has estimated that average dairy incomes will fall by as much as 50 per cent this year. The picture is bleak, but not black, because 2017 was an extremely good year for farmers, particularly in the dairy sector. Average farm incomes rose by 30 per cent to almost €32,000. Dairy farmers enjoyed an exceptional year, with average incomes rising by as much as 80 per cent, to €90,000.
International market prices and weather-related events are expected to wipe out those gains this year. Of particular concern too is the impact Brexit may have on the agri-food sector, which is heavily dependent on the UK market. A hard Brexit would impact directly on farm incomes and cross-Border trade would be affected. Farm supports under the Common Agriculture Policy could fall with the loss of the UK contribution.
Efforts are under way to find new markets and diversify exports. But it will take time to develop additional outlets and to identify particular consumer needs. The challenges posed by the sector’s contribution to Irish carbon emissions also remain unresolved.
At this stressful time, it is imperative that safety precautions on farms should receive the utmost attention. Twenty-four people died last year, making farming the most dangerous occupation in the State. A further 2,500 were injured, many seriously. Increased mechanisation, part-time farming, pressure of work and an ageing population contribute to these awful statistics. The ploughing championship offers a positive atmosphere in which to promote farm safety.