Opinion: Is the end is sight for the family farm as we know it?
It’s a New Year. I’m equally excited and despairing of resolutions — excited by the prospect of making them and despairing of my capacity to implement them with any conviction. I suppose I like the notion of change rather than its reality.
Thankfully, it takes more than myself to transform my life, it takes a confluence of happenings — both planned and accidental — to bring about change. As former British Prime Minister Harold McMillan famously said, “Events, dear boy, events”.
I don’t often wear my farming property hat when writing this column, but I have just completed the end of year review of happenings in the auction rooms of the country. It is obvious that there are major changes afoot in farming, changes that centre round the ownership and the use of land.
Since the Land War, the Land Acts and the foundation of the Land Commission, the family farm has been the bedrock of Irish agriculture. In the 148 years since the first of these Land Acts was passed ownership of the family farm has become embedded as a core value in rural Ireland, it is a value that has fermented over the decades in a cocktail of tradition, hard work, passion and sometimes blood.
But all is changing as events and developments conspire to alter some of the fundamentals of Irish farming. The increase in size of what is regarded as a viable farming unit has meant that any holding less than 100ac is under pressure when it comes to providing an adequate living for a modern family. It is not too long ago when holdings of half this size were capable of rearing and educating relatively large families.
I remember working with a company in the west of Ireland in the mid-1990s. The organisation was expanding and hiring local graduates; quite a few of these graduates came from farms of between 30ac and 35ac where farming was the only source of income. Such holdings would now be incapable of providing a single person with an adequate livelihood.
Today, many of these farms are idle or are leased on an ad-hoc basis to neighbours and relatives. Most will eventually be sold in executor sales.
During my days in rural development I worked with a man who was deeply concerned about the absence of a land policy on the part of the State. He worried that the country would become a patchwork of wild and abandoned farmsteads as family ownership rather than land use continued to be the core value.