Farmers who have the best of both worlds
Separate incomes enable part-timers to continue to work in the countryside
When part-time farming began to accelerate in the 1980s, it was often considered a mark of failure for farmers. It was an admission that their holding was unable to generate an income capable of sustaining a farmer and his family.
In those days, it was gloomily forecasted that up to a third of farms would eventually be run on a part-time basis. Indeed, one of the most depressing aspects of the 1990s was the number of high-profile farmers who decided to opt out of full-time farming.
Having an “outside” income had been a feature of Irish farming for many decades. Some of the most secure farmers were those lucky to be married to a professional woman such as a nurse or teacher. Those households had one steady income, and were not at the mercy of market or weather conditions.
The pessimists of nearly 30 years ago were correct. There has been a surge in the number of part-time farmers in recent decades. Many did not have the financial resources to survive on one income. They couldn’t modernise their facilities, buy more land or increase their output.
But despite the derogatory description of “hobby farmers” of earlier days, the current attitude to part-time farmers is distinctly positive.
Any residual stigma that part-time farmers are in any sense second class has long been dispelled. They are now respected for their contribution to agricultural output, and admired for the high levels of energy they bring to the business.
The boom years of the Celtic Tiger created opportunities for farmers especially in the construction business. By 2006, as many as 42 per cent of farmers had off-farm jobs, and on 60 per cent of farms the farmer and/or partner had a job.
However, with scarcity of jobs following the economic collapse and the decline of the construction industry, the proportion of part-time farmers had dropped to 32 per cent in 2011.
The number of farms where the farmer and/or partner had a job has also fallen to 50 per cent. But about 35,000 farmers remain in the part-time category.
Many farmers and their adult children have returned to the land after the economic bust, and places in agricultural colleges have been fully booked over the past few years.
Part-time farming favours those with sheep and cattle, but it frequently involves early morning, late evening and weekend work, outside the hours of the “day job”.