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Sunday 11 December 2016

Ploughing is a bridge between urban and rural Ireland

Alan Renwick

Published 30/09/2015 | 02:30

Taoiseach Enda Kenny high fives Fiona Hern from Waterford at the 2015 National Ploughing Championships in Ratheniska, County Laois. Pic: Mark Condren
Taoiseach Enda Kenny high fives Fiona Hern from Waterford at the 2015 National Ploughing Championships in Ratheniska, County Laois. Pic: Mark Condren

As the dust settles on the Ploughing, it is a good time to reflect on the event's economic, social and political importance.

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This year a record 281,000 people are estimated to have attended. From a much smaller attendance of around 180,000 in 2011, a UCD study estimated that the Ploughing generated around €36.5m. This included just under €10m in trade purchases, a similar figure on food, and €7m on personal shopping. As with studies from other countries these figures highlight major economic benefits to the local economy from hosting such events, especially for the hospitality sectors.

While the numbers from 2011 are impressive in themselves, and are likely to be much bigger now given the significant growth in attendance, expenditure by visitors to the show itself is only a part of the economic impact.

For example, these figures do not seem to include the amount spent during the construction of the site or the wider knock on effect of the direct expenditure as it circulates round the economy - the so-called multiplier effect. Often this indirect economic impact can be as large as the original expenditure.

Whilst the exact distribution of the overall spending between businesses is not known, a somewhat crude idea of where the money spent at the ploughing goes may be obtained through considering the location of businesses exhibiting at the show.

Based on the 2015 list of exhibitors, it is interesting to see that in this most rural of events, the biggest proportion, at just under 20pc, of businesses came from County Dublin. This noted there was a wide geographic spread in those present with no other county accounting for more than 9pc of exhibitors, highlighting the importance of agribusiness and related industries to many of the local economies outside of Dublin.

Not all of the expenditure is likely to stay in the Irish economy; for example, 10pc of those exhibiting were from outside of Ireland, mainly companies from Northern Ireland and Britain. Also a number of businesses classified as Irish due to their address will in effect be foreign owned.

Beyond the business sector, further analysis of the exhibitors can give us some insight into who else finds 'value' from the event. Education and training bodies were well represented as were the main rural membership organisations.

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Unlike in England where the rural voice is relatively weak, perhaps illustrated by the folding of the Royal Agricultural Show a number of years ago, it is clearly still strong in Ireland.

All the main political parties were present as were a huge range of Government bodies, ranging from the Irish Coast Guard to the European Commission representation.

The wider benefit to the rural population itself should not be underestimated. The fact that just over a third of those attending described themselves as farmers supports studies from the US where it was found that agricultural fairs provided non-monetary benefits to the farming and wider rural community. These include supporting rural traditions, and increasing unity within communities and families.

For those selling products or services it may be relatively easy to estimate the net benefit of exhibiting at the Ploughing as the difference between sales, either during the three days or follow on business, and the cost of exhibiting.

For other organisations the benefits are far less tangible and the not insignificant costs have to be justified against the perceived gains of being 'seen' at the Ploughing.

Therefore the continued success of the Ploughing in terms of attracting exhibiters does depend, in part, on these organisations being able to justify their costs and record high attendances do no harm for the organisers in this regard.

Perhaps though the biggest impact of the Ploughing is how it promotes pride in our rural culture and farming traditions.

This serves to keep agriculture not only at the forefront of the political agenda but also in the psyche of the wider population.

This is important because it maintains the unwritten contract between taxpayers, the majority of whom are based in cities, and the rural communities of Ireland.

Alan Renwick is Professor of Agriculture and Food Economics at UCD

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