Many older farmers feel ‘digitally excluded’ because they are unable to access schemes and services online – but help is at hand
Ireland’s over 700-page plan to implement the new Common Agricultural Policy mentions the word ‘digital’ 144 times. It mentions ‘young farmers’ 199 times.
‘Older farmers’, though, appear just 14 times, and most of these mentions are ideas to encourage them to retire faster.
Dubbed the ‘grey divide’, those without digital skills or access to digital technology have never faced as many barriers to services and information that affects their daily lives. Nowhere is this more acute than in agriculture.
There are 42,000 farmers over the age of 65, according to the CSO. According to recent research from Age Action, 25pc of those over 65 don’t use the internet, and this rises to 56pc for those over 75.
Despite this, each year, methods of carrying out their business the ‘traditional’ way are chipped away by the State and businesses.
Celine Clarke, head of advocacy with Age Action, says the statistics around digital exclusion in Ireland are stark.
“In 2021, 65pc of people over the age of 65 experienced digital exclusion,” she says.
“That means either they don’t have the skills, or they don’t have access to a device, or they can’t afford it.
“In 2019, Ireland had the second-highest number of older adults with no overall digital skills in the EU, and we know that 43pc of those are aged 65 to 74.
“We also know that in Ireland in 2016, one in four people over the age of 65 who were engaged in paid work were farmers making a huge contribution to the economy as well as within our communities.
“It’s well known that older persons are digitally excluded.
“Older age is still the biggest indicator for those who are either not online or those with some sort of skills gap, or those who can’t access the internet, either through poor access to broadband, no device, or maybe affordability. So there are barriers.
“When we see a policy or service that’s been delivered in a digital-first approach, it really undermines many older people’s ability to participate and to do their work.”
Huge efforts have been made to provide digital training to older persons over the years, with groups like Age Action and Teagasc providing courses.
However, Celine says: “The silver bullet of training actually isn’t a silver bullet.
“There are many people who just won’t be able to develop sufficient skills to be able to do this type of process online.
“There are also literacy issues, as experienced in the older age cohort. Two-thirds of people aged 65 or older finished their education after primary school or secondary school, and only 12pc of persons age 65 hold a university degree.”
Celine points to another key barrier to older people participating in training programmes — shame.
“Age action ran a digital literacy programme called Getting Started, which is free training that’s tailored to your needs,” she says.
“We do find that one of the barriers for people accessing the service is a reluctance to reveal that they have a problem.
“And sometimes, not having digital skills is related to having poor numeracy or literacy skills as well.
“Some people are finding it a huge barrier to overcome that sort of sense of embarrassment, the sense of going back into a sort of an education space — maybe they had a very poor experience of education when they were in the formal education system.
“It undermines their sense of themselves and their independence, when they can’t do something that they should be able to do.”
It’s unfair when a service is delivered in a digital-first way, Celine says, adding that being able to access information is also undermined.
“If people are being forced to get information online or to have an email address to receive information, or where advertising from radio or TV drive people to source information online…” she says. “It’s totally inadequate.”
In a response on the issue, the Department of Agriculture said it was acutely aware that some farmers may have digital literacy difficulties, and cannot easily access, understand and/or use online information on its schemes and services.
Such farmers, it said, may not hear about online information sessions or resources.
It also said it understands that the new CAP changes require additional communication, and that the schemes are sometimes complex.
“We aim to provide the best possible customer service to all our clients to ensure that participants in these schemes have a good understanding of their terms and conditions,” it said.
“The Department will continue to use all channels to engage with its clients to ensure that all farmers, including older farmers, are fully supported.”
Despite this, Celine says there needs to be recognition that the “huge pace” of the digital revolution has left people behind.
“The amount of services and support that we can access online is amazing — for those of us that can access them online,” she says.
“Unfortunately, there is a group of people, particularly older people, who are excluded from that. And not only can they not access the same service or they have an unfavourable experience or outcome, but they also psychologically are put under huge pressure.
“They feel they can’t do something or that they’re left out of the system. It’s just not for them.”
The digital divide and the Government’s digital-first strategy could also open older people up to huge levels of potential abuse and exploitation, Celine Clarke of Age Action says.
“We see in our work some older persons can come under huge pressure either from family members or neighbours or members of the community to make decisions that are not always in their best interest,” she says.
“There can be a level of manipulation and coercion put on a person, and you can see a situation where it (Government) has a digital-first approach — people don’t have sufficient information.”
Celine says reports of elder abuse to the HSE safeguarding team are increasing year on year.
“That could be because more people are aware of what it is, and that is a good thing for people to be aware of it and be able to name it and report it,” she says.
“But unfortunately, we do see a trend and we don’t have safeguarding legislation in Ireland yet.”
Age Action is among those campaigning for a change into the legislation on coercive control to expand it beyond intimate relationships.
“Unfortunately, for older persons, who maybe don’t have trusted and supportive family members around them, they are caught in a vulnerable situation when they have to seek outside help to manage their financial affairs or to make decisions that are critically important to their wellbeing,” she says.
Older people doing their best to take action is also vital, Celine says.
“It is important that they raise their voice locally, through their local representative, or TD and let them know that a digital-first approach is excluding them and putting them at risk.
“It is solvable. It is something that can change. There can be a change in approach to make it more accessible for people in an offline manner.”
“I will be totally lost”, Sligo sheep farmer Padraig Devaney said after a recent Teagasc meeting detailing a new CAP scheme.
Padraig is one of the thousands of farmers who have difficulty with digital technologies and are facing increasing barriers to accessing support and services as society increasingly shifts to online only.
“I have been a hands-on, practical-work man all my life,” he said. “As a young person, I had no real interest in books. I was always just interested in hands-on farming.
“I am not on the internet. I just have an old-type phone.”
Padraig is lucky to have his family to help him with the digital side of the farm business.
“But loads of farmers don’t,” he said. “It’s not fair to many people, particularly older people. It makes them dependent on others for information.
“With the new Sheep Improvement Scheme, it’s unreal the amount of data that needs to be collected and inputted. I will be totally lost.
“But it’s the same in every element of society now. The Government and businesses don’t want to deal with people any more. They would rather deal with a computer. They don’t want to talk to people individually.
“A great example is the annual Sheep Census. It costs €16 to send it by registered post. It’s free online. Is that fair to someone who is not online?”
Farming, he said, is like a different business now compared to when he started.
“Most farmers I know like the physical aspects of farming — getting out there and doing the hands-on part. When it comes to the paperwork and online stuff many are lost and are dependent on someone else to do it.
“Particularly for many of our older farmers, this stuff is alien to them.
“They are just not able to keep up with the technology.”
Padraig fears many in this cohort are reacting to the dramatic changes by becoming more withdrawn and less likely to seek support.
“They feel they are being left behind. They feel like they are not valued any more,” he said, stressing that they should reach out and seek support.
“But then farmers don’t have the support they had years ago. I’m talking about with neighbours. They are more isolated now. When I was a kid, neighbours would help each other with issues like this. That doesn’t happen as much now.”
In terms of what can be done, Padraig says discussion groups are a good method of getting information to farmers.