There’s only one syllable of difference between a tractor run and a tractorcade, but they are worlds apart in terms of the effect they have on behalf of the farming community.
Tractor runs have become a sure-fire way of raising eye-popping amounts of money for various charities and good causes.
The latest trend is for every vehicle to don enough Christmas lights to power a small village, but it’s easy to see why it has caught on.
The spectacle of hundreds of huge gleaming hunks of steel lighting up dark country roads for miles and miles has brought thousands of non-farming folk to a standstill on their doorways and in their gardens as they marvel at the massive show of agricultural power out in its sparkling Sunday best.
A recent run locally in North County Dublin in memory of the well regarded fruit and vegetable grower Laurence McGuinness was the one that caught my eye over New Year’s.
Nearly 500 tractors, trucks and vehicles of all shapes and sizes turned up and raised an astonishing €120,000 for local charities, including Aoife’s Clown Doctors, LauraLynn — Ireland’s Children’s Hospice, Skerries Youth Support Services and The Friends of St Luke’s Cancer Care.
What was heartening to see was the willingness of the non-farming spectators to dig deep and add to the contributions from local farmers and businesses.
It was just one of hundreds of tractor runs that are organised across the island throughout the year. They often raise north of €10,000, and €50,000 events are not unusual.
It does involve a huge amount of organising and literally hundreds of volunteers to act as stewards. The line of tractors in Lusk took nearly 45 minutes to pass each point, so you can imagine the impact on local traffic.
Yet despite this, there is nothing but goodwill expressed by all involved and those who just got to look from the sidelines.
Contrast this with the stream of angry calls, tweets and posts anytime that other word for a mass gathering of tractors is used — the tractorcade.
This is all about protest. On paper, they are the exact same thing, but the outcomes are the polar opposite.
The public see farmers in their gleaming €200,000 tractors complaining that they are not being listened to by the powers that be. Traffic is delayed and Joe Duffy’s switch board lights up with Joe Public ready to vent about all the reasons why farmers get on his nerves.
Tractorcade invariably makes the news headlines, with TV cameras loving the sheer size of all these colourful, shiny machines. But who do the organisers think they are winning over to the farmers’ side?
What’s the alternative? The fact is that farmers have a powerful story to tell, if they could just find the time and where-with-all to tell it.
We do it almost every week on Ear To The Ground, but the advent of smartphones and social media has democratised access to the airwaves for everyone and anyone.
Farmers don’t have to wait for a TV crew from RTÉ to turn up to tell their story. The real challenge is getting farmers to think about the stories they have to tell.
I’m as guilty as the next fella. As a flower farmer, I have a great story to show and tell from my farm. While you might think there’s only so many times you can show a photo of daffodils, the public are actually interested in far more than pretty pictures of farms. They want to see behind the curtain, so to speak. They want to understand why it can be so torturous trying to make a living from growing food.
The problem is that the tweets and posts required to tell this ongoing story take time, and some confidence that you are not inadvertently throwing yourself to the wolves.
But imagine how powerful it would be if the farming organisations offered their members courses in how to start telling their own stories.
Not only would farmers own the narrative, they would be moving beyond the old trope of marching and protesting into the new realm of using social media to their advantage.
They could literally have tens of thousands of farmers out there flooding timelines and news streams with real-life stories from the coalface.
And save the tractor gatherings for the fund-raising. That way, everyone’s a winner.
Darragh McCullough runs a mixed farm enterprise in Meath, elmgrovefarm.ie.