A huge decline in the number of people employed in agriculture in the west of Ireland is revealed in recent information from the Western Development Commission. There was a 41.4% decline in the number of people working in agriculture, forestry and fishing in the Western region in the 20 years from 1996 to 2016, which is having a devastating impact on the economic life of rural Ireland.
The Western Development Commission recently complied information on employment in agriculture, forestry and fishing in the counties of the western region between 1996 and 2016 and the resulting data makes for very sobering reading. It provides stark proof and statistical data to underpin what many people trying to make a living in rural areas in the west already know, that these areas are dying on their feet.
If the current trend continues, and there is every indication that it will, in a few years there will be half as many people working in the farming sector as there was in 1996. These are the people that are the lifeblood of rural areas. They are often the only people to be found in these rural areas during the day. If a person is in difficulty or needs help with a task, these are the people to be called on. As their numbers decline, rural areas are increasingly becoming dormitories for local towns and regional cities.
The reason for the decline is clear, farm incomes are at a level where farming is not profitable on thousands of farms in the west. This is reflected in an increase in the number of people working as farmers between 2006 and 2011, many of these were part-time farmers whose main work was in construction and when they found themselves out of work, the returned to their farm work and described themselves as full time farmers in the next census. Since 2011 the downward trend has continued as these people increasingly find work.
This government and future governments need to look for innovative ways to support farmers living and working in the west of Ireland. They have fewer opportunities for off-farm employment, there is lower jobs diversity in the west. Also the region has fewer opportunities in knowledge economies such as ICT, Finance, which could help compound the problem.
Increased bureaucratic requirements is also making farming more difficulties and incentivising a move towards fewer and larger farms, which will be of little benefit to the vibrancy of our rural communities. Farmers are important custodians of the local environment and should be increasingly supported to maintain their local environments. A re-think is needed in terms of the penalties that farmers are increasingly facing for minor changes and alterations to plans such as Glas plans and more focus should be placed on minimising bureaucracy and achieving real environmental results than the current system of imposing large penalties for minor or insignificant changes to plans.
Few people who work outside of agriculture understand how dependent farmers are for their income on farm payments and how these payments can be drastically reduced or withdrawn without warning, or payments can be delayed for months on end because of computer problems within the Department. Meanwhile, farm families are receiving calls from merchants and local suppliers waiting for payment while the timing of their payment is beyond the farmers’ control.
I recently came across a case where a farmer faced very significant penalties because he planted a row of trees a few metres from where was initially indicated on a plan. The trees are there, reducing our carbon emissions, and are healthier and more successful than if they were planted in the original area, as the ground was more suitable. Yet this farmer faces very significant penalties, which he can challenge, but this process is too lengthy and drawn out.
Another farmer who contacted me lodged an appeal in October 2015, it was heard by an appeals committee and partially upheld in July 2016 and now in January 2018 the person’s payments are still affected and they are still waiting on the matter to be resolved. Is it any wonder that farmers are deserting a line of business where so much of what happens is outside their control, between Department regulations, flooding, fodder crisis, increasing rainfall and a way of life which is becoming increasingly isolated?
Losing over 41% of our farmers in a twenty year period should be a real wake-up call in terms of looking at the real problems facing rural communities. Real action to support the remaining farmers, is what is needed.