Farm Ireland

Monday 11 December 2017

A helping hand on hard road to change

Farmers get a dig out with novel mentoring

Brian Lyons, Smallholders Officer with the Offaly Local Development Company, left, visits the farm of Eoin Lyons at Five Roads, Banagher, Co Offaly
Brian Lyons, Smallholders Officer with the Offaly Local Development Company, left, visits the farm of Eoin Lyons at Five Roads, Banagher, Co Offaly
Jim O'Brien

Jim O'Brien

In recent decades off-farm jobs came to be regarded as the salvation of the family farm. However, these jobs, mainly in construction, light engineering and assembly work, were the first to succumb to the downturn.

Brian Lyons, Smallholder Development Officer with Offaly Local Development Company is well aware of the challenges faced by all farmers but particularly by smaller farmers who depended on the job outside the farm gate.

"In 2007 we became aware that more and more drystock farmers on holdings up to 100 acres were no longer getting a decent income from the land and the off-farm jobs were not secure. These people had arrived at a crossroads and needed to make decisions about the future. With this in mind we established the Crossroads Programme."

According to Brian, the first thing the programme sought to do was enable farmers to face the reality of their situation.

"We encouraged them to look at the farm and establish if it was making a profit or a loss, independent of the single farm payment. A key question they had to ask was whether they were able to pocket this payment for the family. We then asked them to look at their skills and how those skills could be used to generate extra income on the farm. Finally, we encouraged them to examine the whole farm family situation in the context of identifying other potential for generating income."


The 20-hour Crossroads Programme consisted of seven group sessions and a farm visit. Two courses, one in Banagher and one in Tullamore, were run between winter 2009 and spring 2010. Ten farmers participated on each course and the sessions covered issues such as skill assessment, resource assessment, group work, individual coaching and mentoring. Specific information was also provided on key areas such as financial management and training opportunities. The final section of the programme focused on drawing up a time-framed action plan and establishing ways of monitoring the implementation of the plan.

Sheila Hoctor, development officer with Offaly Local Development Company, worked with Brian Lyons on the programme. For Sheila two of the great challenges faced by participants on the course centred around acceptance of the need to change and engaging in teamwork.

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"Farmers are adaptable and have a huge range of skills from animal husbandry to book-keeping to mechanics and many others. However, a key skill they often lack is teamwork. This is to be expected because farming is predominantly a one-person operation but in the emerging rural reality co-operation and teamwork are essential."

Sheila also believes that farmers need to learn how to apply their adaptability to their mindset. "They need to bring a whole new mindset to their farm. Sometimes they forget that what they are involved in is a business. For instance, most farmers simply see their farm as something that produces food. If they don't look at other ways it can produce a living then they won't survive."

One of Sheila's roles on the course was to link Crossroads participants with other initiatives and programmes delivered by the Offaly Local Development Company, these included a business start-up course and a career options programme.

Course participant Eoin Lyons is enthusiastic about Crossroads. A young farmer on a 107-acre drystock holding in west Offaly, like many of his peers Eoin combined farming with a job in construction.


Between 2000 and 2007 he worked on the buildings and with the collapse of that industry he's back full time on the farm. He found the return to the solitary life of the farmer difficult after the camaraderie of the building site.

"On the farm you are on your own except for the day you go to the mart. On this course you get a chance to hear what others have to say and you can bounce your ideas around, different people look at the same situation in a different way and this can be very helpful."

Eoin says that when, as part of the course, he sat down and looked at his farm he discovered the enterprise was losing money.

"Very often as farmers we don't have a clear focus on what we want the farm to do and don't play to our strengths. The course helped me to focus on what I wanted to achieve, to do something and do it well rather than jumping around from one thing to another. For example, I now believe that farming is like any other business; if you're not making a profit you should just stop what you're at and change."

A follow-on to the Crossroads Programme is planned for this winter. According to Brian Lyons the new course, involving Offaly Local Development Company and Teagasc, will be a longer version of Crossroads linking rural development, community development and technical farming.

Irish Independent