Farm Ireland

Sunday 18 March 2018

Comment: Farmers should turn derelict buildings on their lands into assets rather than eyesores

Jim O'Brien

Jim O'Brien

Having a farm is a huge resource. However big or small, the holding provides a wealth of opportunity. I know many of you reading this are looking at bills mounting and income going through the ground, but hear me out.

When it comes to problem solving, there's a lot of talk these days about 'thinking outside the box' and imagining something completely different.

In the case of farmers, they have no shortage of problems, but they also have no shortage of boxes. A brief look at the recently published Teagasc farm enterprise survey shows how incomes in tillage, beef and milk were on the floor throughout 2016, and while milk has shown some recovery in 2017, many dairy farmers have invested heavily and are just about staying on the right side of the letter in the post.

Everyone else is suffering, especially those in the tillage community.

For all the talk about diversification over the years, there has been very little activity inside the farm gate to generate extra income.

Many farmers have taken off-farm jobs, be they part-time or full-time, and many spouses are working outside the farm, but relatively few have looked at the resources they have on the farm and few have seriously thought about doing something with them.

In my role as roving property correspondent I have occasion to visit a lot of farms, and on every journey I see all kinds of possibilities and indeed missed opportunities.

For instance many farmers, when they develop a new farmyard are inclined to let the old one drift into rack and ruin, with some lovely old cut-stone buildings falling into complete disrepair.

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That might have been understandable in years gone by when the built heritage wasn't highly regarded and there wasn't much to be gained from old buildings.

However, the rise of phenomena like Airbnb and indeed the crisis in the housing and rental markets create real opportunities for alternative uses for farm buildings and facilities that are surplus to requirements. It is a shame farmers don't pursue options for more diverse uses of their property.

There is a huge market out there for Airbnb, a clean and easy way to make a few extra euro. The accommodation is booked through a website, the clients make contact with you regarding directions and keys; they pay through the website and the website pays you.

People all over the country and the globe in the most out-of-the-way, non-tourist areas can bring in a steady extra income from a room or a granny flat or a small house they don't use.

Very often travellers using this facility are more adventurous and less likely to stick to the standard tourist routes. A converted cow byre on a sheep and suckler farm in Ballyeergoolta might just be what they want.

Farm property brochures will often describe farmyards as having 'useful farm buildings and a semi-derelict farmhouse'.

I'll admit that in many cases the house in question would be so embedded in the yard you wouldn't live in it yourself, and you certainly wouldn't expect anyone else to, even for a short period of time. Indeed, a guest could find herself sharing the shower with a bullock (of the four-legged variety).

Nevertheless, a bit of design and a dollop of imagination could isolate the building and transform it from a rubbish gatherer into an income generator.

Office space is another need. Of course good broadband is essential and we know only too well that such a thing is as scarce as the corncrake in rural Ireland.

However, many people, like my good self, who work from home would occasionally like to have access to an office or a space away from the four walls of the place in which they eat, sleep, work and play.

There is a strong growth in what are called 'hot desks' - places that can be rented by the hour, by the day or by the week to people who might need that kind of facility for a short period of time.

To do all this will take money, but there is help there, from the local LEADER companies, the Local Enterprise Office at the county council and the local Credit Union that can provide home improvement loans. People who have done this will be more than willing to share their stories.

So now, that house with a pallet tied to the door, the one you have promised to clean out when the weather breaks… have another look at it and get in touch with your inner Dermot Bannon or Francis Brennan. You'd never know where it might take you.

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