Farm Ireland

Tuesday 21 November 2017

How policies formed after WW2 paved the way for farm income inequalities that still exist today

Farmers attending a silage making demonstration
Farmers attending a silage making demonstration

Joanne Banks

Changing agricultural policies in the second half of the 20th century dramatically contributed to significant farm income inequalities that still exist today.

A guide, philosopher and friend: Untold stories of Ireland's agricultural advisors tells the life stories of retired agricultural advisors whose careers spanned the decades following World War II - a crucial period in the history of Irish agriculture.

Despite being major players in changing farmers' attitudes, increasing production and improving standards of living on farms, very little is known about the history and evolution of the service.

The reflections of these men and women can help reconstruct our understanding of rural Ireland during this period of change.

The interviews shine a light on the changing economic and social context in which advisors worked. Although the state advisory service was established in 1900, it was not until the 1950s and 1960s that priority was given to promoting and expanding it.

Essentially, they acted as mediators between the Department of Agriculture and farmers who worked on the ground.

The initial aim of the advisory service was based on a philosophy of 'helping farmers help themselves' by providing free agricultural information and instruction at county level through county committees of agriculture.

Many advisors interviewed talked about being inspired by the vocational nature of the job. Gaining the farmers' trust was essential but the suspicion that greeted many state services at the time did not seem to apply to agricultural advisors.

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Tony describes the level of trust that had to exist between advisors and farmers: "You were there to help the farmers, you weren't there as a department administrator, you weren't there to represent the county committee or anything. Your basic job was to help the farmer in his business. That was the primary aim. That was the sole aim."

Advisors worked within a specified district carrying out a range of duties including farm visits, demonstrations, agricultural classes and lectures.

Farmers getting dairy advice
Farmers getting dairy advice

Advisors saw the value in getting farmers to learn from each other while gaining respect among their peers.

Regional disparities

However, regional disparities soon emerged in terms of advisor/farmer ratios.

Pat, who worked in as an agricultural advisor in the 1940s and 1950s said it was impossible to make any real difference while working with so many farmers.

"I had 7,000 farmers in my district. I was completely disgusted that I had such a big area," he said.

In the post-war period, ag advisors had no office accommodation or equipment and mainly worked from their cars or from home.

By the 1960s, a major recruitment drive was taking place and advisor numbers rose from 164 in 1959 to 363 in 1979.

Regional disparities continued to be a problem, with far fewer advisors working in small farming counties compared to wealthier eastern counties.

By the early 1960s, Kildare had the largest number of advisory staff in the country with one advisor to every 706 farms compared with one advisor to 2,896 farmers in Donegal.

Jim, a former advisor who worked in Leitrim described how new recruits were keen to work in more progressive regions.

"Every Monday morning there would be a new face, it was that frequent. The fellas that came hadn't much interest in it because they were all looking to get to more sophisticated type farming. Here it was small farmers and difficult terrain," he said.

Advisors interviewed also recalled dealing with technical, scientific, financial and personal issues.

Those based in western counties explained how they had to focus on developing services and basic living conditions before any farming issues could be addressed.

All of the advisors interviewed noted the effect of Ireland's membership of the EEC in 1973 on their work.

In successful farming regions, advisors spoke about how they witnessed farmers finally enjoy prosperity.

Dave, who worked in the advisory service in Galway said: "Everything we touched turned to gold, the wide was up, process were increasing, there were a lot of young farmers, full time farmers".

Others spoke of how long-term clients reached their potential and improved their standard of living.

EEC Changes

However, the accession into the EEC brought fundamental changes to the original philosophy of the service.

Gradually, the personal relationship between the farmer and the advisor was replaced by a more business-like relationship.

One advisor described how he became an intermediate in the moving of funds from the EEC and the department to the farmer.

The work became increasingly administrative.

Brendan who worked in Waterford described his concern with the new approach and the loss of the social element of his job.

"A lot of the work was around form filling, which was unfortunate. That's how the focus on the broader rural living, farm households, viability and livelihoods perhaps got lost," he said.Although many farmers benefited from schemes and incentives to produce more, some advisors said increased production led to reduced quality in agricultural products.

Tommy said quality control should have been introduced at an earlier stage.

"I mean all that Farm Modernisation Scheme was built towards producing more and more food.

"The quality might not have been just as high as it should have been.

It was a great scheme for farmers, in that they got a lot of money out of it, but whether it was the right thing to do or not I wouldn't be so sure. We were just having premiums for animals, rather than quality animals," he said.

Advisors also spoke about how the Farm Modernisation Scheme contributed to increasing income inequalities in favour of the larger farm operators.

Without regional policies, James said he felt limited in what he could do with small farmers.

"My big concern was that we had dropped the ball, it had all become about modernisation, you can see that in some ways, yes it was a good thing, but only for some, that there are other things needed in rural Ireland to keep some semblance of population there with some kind of quality of life," he said.

The findings offer alternative perspectives on this period of Irish history.

The freedom and flexibility they had in their early careers meant a blurring of boundaries between the state and the farmer, particularly in poor farming regions.

The interviews show how advisors negotiated a careful line between acting as agents of agricultural change and guardians of family farming, a line which shifted during the course of the late 20th century.

*Ag advisors' names have been changed for confidentiality reasons

Joanne Banks, Research Officer at the Economic and Social Research Institute (ERSI), completed the research as part of her PhD

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