Young farmers ‘the way forward’ for changing mindset - but ‘the money’s not in it’

At the National Ploughing Championships, the next generation reflects on challenges in a changing landscape

President Michael D Higgins was speaking about young people on Tuesday morning as he opened the National Ploughing Championships in Ratheniska, Co Laois: “I want to say – their’s is the future.”

For many young people attending the three-day event this week, a level of uncertainty hovers over the future the President spoke of – not least for those from a farming background, considering the practicalities of persevering with a family legacy.

“You just don’t want to be the generation that lets it slip [away], either,” Diarmuid Bracken said, standing by a Teagasc display area on Thursday morning.

In the years since the 19-year-old started helping out on his family’s 400-acre beef, tillage, sheep farm in Kilcormack, Co Laois, has seen the operation navigate a series of challenges.


His family’s basic payment scheme entitlement – previously the single farm payment – has dropped considerably in recent years. Bracken also says that proposed cuts to the nitrates derogation limit will have knock-on effects, driving up the price of land.

“Farming full time, it’s a grand lifestyle and everything else, its a grand job… but still, the money’s not in it,” he said.

If he does take over the family enterprise at some stage in the future, it won’t be for financial reward.

“You’re lucky if you’re coming out with €20,000 or €30,000 for yourself every year.”

Peadar Shallow (17), from Inver, Co Donegal, is of a similar opinion. “I know there’s no future in [farming]. I just do it because I enjoy it.

“I was reared on a farm, on my grandfather’s farm, and I just took a love of farming. It’s one of those things, when you start it, you can’t stop it,” he said, leaning on a walking stick as he stood outside the Farmers’ Journal tent on Wednesday afternoon.

“For young farmers, there’s no future in it. It’s a part-time job.”

Shallow keeps about 40 ewes on his grandfather’s farm.

He hopes to study agriculture in Letterkenny after securing a college place in the recent CAO offers. Before that, however, he will swap the farm in Donegal for New Zealand – once he gets his driving licence.

“Going abroad is the only way to make money,” he said.

“Even to build a house now, it’s too expensive. Renovating a house would be grand, but the price of everything – Ireland must be one of the dearest countries in Europe.

“When you’re young, people think you don’t realise, but when you are in the farming, you know all about it, because of the price of things.”

Niamh Farrell, chairperson of Macra’s rural youth committee, is well acquainted with the threat of emigration to rural life in Ireland.

“It’s definitely an issue,” she said on Thursday morning, sitting in the Sinn Féin tent prior to a panel discussion.

“Our clubs, our towns, our villages, our members have seen their best friends leaving,” Farrell, who lives on a dairy farm with her partner in Knockcroghery, Co Roscommon, said.

One Macra member that she knew of was the last of his school year still in Ireland – the rest had emigrated.

“Young farmers really do want an opportunity to stay in Ireland. We just want to have access to affordable housing, access to your health, access to affordable transport.

“Without having access to all those, it’s going to be very hard to keep farmers there,” she said.

One way of keeping young farmers in the community is a new farm succession scheme, proposed by the rural youth association.

Macra have pushed the Government for a scheme that would allow older generations of farmers to step back from working the land, and support a younger cohort to become active farmers.

The proposed scheme would see the farm-owner financially rewarded for stepping back, while also providing incentives for young farmers to implement environmental measures and meet Government emission targets.

“We understand that we need to be making changes, and making better changes for the environment, but we want those actions to be based on facts and figures and science, and not just hearsay, or one person’s opinion,” Farrell added.

Keeping young people on the farm boils down to financial viability, Anna May McHugh, managing director of the National Ploughing Association, said on Thursday morning.

“We have to look at the cost of production. That’s the biggest thing. And at the end result, is there a profit there?” she said, speaking in the media tent.

“If [young people] don’t see that it’s going to be profitable for them, they’re going to obtain an education – if it’s available to them – and move on from the farm which would be very sad for us. We want to see young farmers.”

Young farmers will be the ones to drive change – environmental or otherwise – in the Irish agricultural sector, said Diarmuid Bracken.

“Young people are the way forward, but still, there has to light at the end of the tunnel. There’s no point in the blind leading the blind, either.

“There has to be to be reassurance there, that if we implement all these environmental [initiatives], that we’re going to be rewarded for it, and it’s not just going to be false promises.”