I recently had the great fortune and opportunity to spend two weeks traveling around Ireland with my wife Kim for our anniversary. Arriving in Dublin, we picked up our subcompact rental car and proceeded south along the coastline to Wexford.
We stayed in a remodeled 13th century abbey on the edge of a small town. Since one of the town’s two pubs had live music on a Sunday evening, we walked the kilometre into town and took a seat in the corner of the bar that at maximum would seat 30 to 40 people. As the locals drifted in, the pub was soon filled.
It didn’t take long for us to start talking to the locals, especially about sports — particularly rugby and hurling. During the course of conversation I mentioned that I was involved with agriculture. No surprise — there were a couple of farmers supporting their local establishment. It took me a while to pick up on their accents but once I warmed up my system with a pint of black gold (Guinness) I found I could understand them better.
The problem, though, was that with every pint they had, their accent turned more Gaelic and guttural. I needed to keep pace with them pint for pint if I ever wanted to be able to understand what they were saying. So for the sake of getting the facts right from the source I committed to this plan and proceeded to discuss farming.
In between music sets we talked about agriculture and I learned some interesting things about how farming in Ireland is changing, what has been forcing those changes and where they see farming in Ireland going in the future.
Farming in Ireland
First, a little context, so their comments will make more sense.
The entire island of Ireland is about 84,421 km2. That’s 8.442 million ha, or 20.85 million acres (1 ha = 2.47 acres). By comparison, Alberta is 661,848 km2 — almost eight times the size of Ireland!
Almost half (4.16M ha) of the total land in Ireland is used for agriculture. Of that only about 378,000 ha (nine per cent) is used to grow crops. Back in 1850 records showed over one million hectares of grains were grown in Ireland.
The acres for crops grown in 2014 were: spring barley, 130,000 ha; winter barley, 80,000 ha; winter wheat, 70,000 ha; spring oats, 20,000 ha; maize, 25,000 ha; rapeseed, 5,000 ha; and the balance in beans and other small crops. The majority of the wheat and barley grown is used for livestock feed with some barley being used for distilling for beer and whiskey.
There are approximately 140,000 farm families in Ireland with the average farm only 32 ha, or 75 acres.
The price of farmland in Ireland has fallen off of the 2013-14 highs which were over $10,000 euros/acre (that’s about $15,000 at current exchange rates).
Current values are down about five per cent to around $9,500 euros/acre ($14,300/acre).
An average winter wheat yield over the past few years has ranged around 126 bushels per acre. An average spring barley yield is around 130 bu./ac.
Now back to the conversation at the pub. This is what they told me.
- Over the last 10 to 15 years many acres have gone out of grain production and back into pasture and or for hay production for sheep and dairy.
- This past spring, EU reforms scrapping dairy quotas have allowed for new expansion and growth in dairy farming across Ireland.
- Acres are shifting from wheat to barley or maize depending on the location of the farm and slope of the land.
- The majority of farms are still very small. Large scale operations of 300+ acres are hard to come by as land prices are so high and the layout of the land with all the rock wall paddocks doesn’t allow for the use of larger machinery.
- The cost of production for wheat for just the seed, fertilizer and chemicals is over $300 euros ($450) per acre because they have to spray fungicides numerous times. Diseases like septoria and fusarium are major problems because of the humid climate. They can see losses of up to 50 per cent to disease. Many producers are shifting to barley or maize which have cheaper input costs.
- Mixed farms help them survive. They feed their grain or sell some to a neighbour who doesn’t grow grain, then they market their sheep or cattle or milk to pay the bills.
- They admit that subsidies help and that is what allows so many small farms to exist today. In Ireland this only makes sense because of the landscape and topography of the country.
The passion for farming is the same in Ireland as it is here in Canada. Farmers want to pass their farms down to the next generation, but they have concerns that costs will drive many small farmers out of the business especially if subsidies payments disappear. It is a way of life that today still works for them and allows them the freedom to do what they love and make a living.