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Continuity and Change in Agriculture in the Parish of Borrisoleigh
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Continuity and Change in Agriculture in the Parish of Borrisoleigh


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The Borrisoleigh Historical Society hosted a lecture in the Community Centre, Borrisoleigh on 26th March 2014. The title of the Lecture was "Continuity and Change in Agriculture in the Parish of …

The Borrisoleigh Historical Society hosted a lecture in the Community Centre, Borrisoleigh on 26th March 2014. The title of the Lecture was "Continuity and Change in Agriculture in the Parish of Borrisoleigh". It was delivered by Borrisoleigh native, Professor Gerry Boyle, Director of Teagasc. This lecture gave a great insight into the past and present methods of farming.

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  • 1. 1 Introduction I am very grateful for the invitation to address the Borrisoleigh Historical Society this evening. This is the second occasion that I’ve spoken publically in this fabulous new facility. I remember it affectionately as Mrs Leahy’s shop – Mrs Leahy was always generous in filling our orders for the penny's worth of sweets. I am speaking here this evening under a false pretext because, first of all, I’m not a historian. My talk this evening is a blend of recent historical and geographically- based trends in farming practices in the parish of Borrisoleigh. The focus in the paper is very much on the underlying social and economic factors that drive change in farming. I want to also explain at the outset that this paper is very much a joint effort with my colleague, Dr David Meredith, who has joined me here this evening. David is an outstanding researcher specialising in the field of rural development and change. While this paper focuses on the role of agriculture in the parish, it is important to appreciate that agriculture plays a vitally important role in the health of the entire local economy. Nationally agriculture is worth about €2.6b. to the economy each year and employs about 120,000 with another 50,000 employed in processing. The indirect effects are even more important, especially in local areas (farm purchases and sales to marts and factories, etc.) Every €1,000 of agricultural income generates a total income of €2,500 through these “upstream and downstream” effects and most of this stays in the local area – a similar effect applies to job creation.
  • 2. 2 The ICT and Pharma sectors tend to be extolled as engines of economic growth but they are not as important to the economy as agriculture. Every €100m. of exports from agriculture contributes about €50m. to national income compared with €19m. from the Pharma and ICT sectors. Drivers of change in agriculture Farming in Borrisoleigh has been shaped by a number of high-level processes that are evident across Ireland, much of Europe and other industrialised countries.  Consolidation: Fewer larger farms  Intensification: Enhancing productivity (per Ha, per Animal or both)  Specialisation: Concentrating on a particular enterprise. At the farm level a number of other, interrelated, developments have affected these processes, most notably:  Long term decline in the real price of food  Increasing off-farm employment (income)  Farm succession (or lack thereof). Taken together, these processes have shaped the restructuring of farm enterprises in the Borrisoleigh area. As I will show through the use of various indicators covering a 30 year period from 1981 to 2011, restructuring has led to changes in the size, composition and type of farming that takes place in the Parish. These changes reflect, in large part, the evolving exigencies of farming in Ireland. Farm enterprises have to continually navigate changes to the technology of farming, the policy environment that govern how food is produced and the increasing role of the global market in determining food prices. These drivers of change operate within the context of structural, environmental, human and capital constraints which, in turn, are filtered through and conditioned by social and cultural institutional structures, e.g. the family, community and the wider industry. These institutional structures have proven resilient, but not immune to change. What we see, therefore, is a sector that is characterised by continuity and change. Continuity is ensured through social and behavioural norms which facilitate certain types of change, e.g. renting out land or changing from dairy to beef production, but are resistant to others, e.g. selling farmland or planting forestry. There is a question as to whether these norms are location or place based, i.e. do they vary between localities or (bio-physical) regions. Research in other jurisdictions, that has focused on different industries, has established that this is the case but, as yet, research in Ireland has yet to engage with this particular issue.
  • 3. 3 Within this presentation we will focus on the 30 year period covering 1981 to 2011. The emphasis is on assessing the extent of local level changes and contrasting these with developments in the rest of North Tipperary. The first part of the presentation covers changes to farms and farming systems. The second part of the presentation discusses these trends and developments in light of the current structure of farm households and some of the key challenges facing farmers in Ireland. In the paper we draw on three data sources to track changes in farming in the Parish as follows:  Census of Agriculture, CSO, every 10 years, since 1991 available at the parish level but comparable data only for 2000 and 2010  Census of Population, CSO, every 5 years and gives data on farm size at parish level from 1981 but these data are not available since 2002 due to confidentiality issues  Places of Work, CSO, this source of data allows us to track demographic changes in farming at the parish level Until comparatively recently it was not possible to conduct such analysis at this level as follow. We define the parish as the aggregate of the Electoral District (EDs) of Glankeen, Borrisoleigh and parts of Upperchurch and Gortkelly (14 townlands). One of the most enduring trends that affects farming systems everywhere is the fact that year in year out the relative price of food has declined. The basic explanation as to why the ratio of food prices to the price of production inputs has fallen over several decades is that the supply of food products, taking one year with another, largely due to the pace of technological change, tends to outstrip the demand for food. This universal structural feature of agricultural production in turn creates huge pressures for change within agriculture. This pressure has been graphically referred to as being akin to a “treadmill” effect. Farmers everywhere have to “run to stand still”. Faced with ever declining real prices in order to maintain income levels they must either increase the size of their operation, improve their levels of productivity, become more specialised, change enterprise or leave the sector either entirely or partially by selling or renting their farms.
  • 4. 4 A major driver of change that’s closely related to price developments is of course the relative income position of farm enterprises (see chart). Other things being equal we would expect the farm enterprise with the relatively highest income to exhibit the fastest growth. Of course not all things are equal and the existence of the dairy quota has affected the agricultural landscape profoundly for the past 30 years. All that of course is subject to change in April of next year. I am now going to take you through a series of slides that exhibit changes in the pattern of farming in the Parish in terms of the number and size of farms. Consolidation: changes in the number and size of farms The number of farms in the Parish declined by 45% (-113) over the 30 years in question (1981 – 2011). The decline in the rest of North Tipperary was 40%. There are now a little under 80 farms in the Parish.
  • 5. 5 The rate of change has varied over time. The process of farm consolidation was relatively slow throughout the 30 years covered by this analysis. Rapid consolidation occurred in the earlier part of the ‘Celtic Tiger’ period, 1996-2002. The most recent period, 2006 – 2011, has seen the level of farm consolidation tailing off. This is a response to a number of factors, including the age structure of the farm population. It is also related to CAP measures and schemes that linked farm payments to land holding. The spatial pattern of changes to farm numbers is mixed. In the south and west of the Parish there has been a significant percentage decline in the number of farms up to 22% whereas there has been a corresponding increase in the east of the Parish. The comparison of 2000 and 2010 data needs to be treated with some caution due to differences in the way these data were collected and the way in which farms
  • 6. 6 were defined. Notwithstanding this caveat, the variability in change at the ED level, some witnessing increases and some experiencing decreases, suggests that the changes are not simply the consequence of different definitions. It is possible that proximity or accessibility to rural towns in the east of the parish has resulted in an increase in the number of (small) farms, i.e. by people combining farm and off-farm employment. Declining farm numbers in the west might be associated with consolidation of dairy farms. The small change in overall farm numbers in recent years is misleading as there were substantial changes in the size and structure of farm enterprises over the period as demonstrated in the next sequence of slides. What we see is a general decline in the number of mid-sized farms and, particularly, specialist dairy producers. These trends are offset by an increase in the number of both small and large farms and, from a farm system perspective, the number of specialist beef producers. This is a feature of farm enterprise trends for many years and affects, in particular, smaller dairy enterprises or dairy enterprises with a relatively small land platform. Many of these producers transition to beef production over the course of a number of years. This tendency is influenced both by policy factors, such as the dairy quota system and by demographic factors, especially the age of farmers. The lack of data for 2006 and 2011 is due to the relatively small number of farms in these farm-size categories at the ED level. The CSO does not release any information that might result in the identification of individual farms. The larger farm group has increased its share of all farms over the period (from about 70% to 80%). This is in line with national (and international) trends. Interestingly, smaller farms have also increased their share of the total.
  • 7. 7 Mid-sized farms have experienced a decline for the following reasons:  Progression into the larger size group  ‘Regression’ to the smaller farm group. This suggests the sale of land (fragments) but the retention of the home place. Change in enterprise specialisation We now look at changes in the degree of enterprise specialisation in regard to dairy, beef and sheep farms. We see a significant change in the prevalence of specialist dairy farms in the parish as a whole. This trend is due to two general factors. First, it’s a function of the more demanding labour requirements on dairy farms which tends to result in a transition to less labour-intensive farming systems as farmers get older. Second, the increased size of farms would probably have resulted in more dairy activity, save for the existence of the dairy quota. To the extent that the quota is an explanatory factor we may well see a reversal of these trends following the abolition of the quota next year.
  • 8. 8 There is clearly an east-west divide in the parish in terms of the relative importance of specialist dairy farms. In the east of the parish between 32% and 39% of farms were classified as specialist dairy farms in 2000. The prevalence in the western side of the parish was somewhat higher. By 2010 there is a remarkable reduction in specialist dairy farms right across the parish to a prevalence of less than 14%. We now examine the trends in the main alternative farm enterprises in the Parish, namely beef and sheep.
  • 9. 9 A counterpart to the dramatic fall off in specialist dairy farms is an increase in specialist beef farms (most likely suckling systems). We note a change in prevalence right across the Parish from about 33% in 2000 to 65% in Glankeen just 10 years later.
  • 10. 10 In spatial terms the east and south east of the Parish had the highest prevalence in 2000 at between 53% and 65%. In the west of the Parish the prevalence was much lower at between 28% and 43%. By 2010 specialist beef farms accounted for between 66% and 79% of all farms in the east and south of the Parish. In the west of the Parish was prevalence is between 53% and 65%. The other important grass-based enterprise is sheep, although its absolute prevalence is substantially less than either dairy or beef farming. It will be also noted that sheep farming is practiced only sporadically in the Parish. It is apparent that there has been a substantial reduction in sheep farming over the last decade or so. In 2000 sheep production was only evident in the west and south of the Parish, albeit at a low level of between 5% and 7%. By 2010 while the overall prevalence of
  • 11. 11 the sheep enterprise has significantly reduced in the Parish, there was actually a small resurgence in sheep farming in the west of the Parish. The sequence of maps has demonstrated that what we are seeing is increasing geographical specialisation e.g. areas are increasingly typified by one particular type of farm enterprise. This trend is a response to a number of different drivers, for example  increasing economies of scale in the dairy sector,  ageing of farm operators,  absence of successors on some farms, and  availability of off farm employment.
  • 12. 12 The shift towards more extensive farming enterprises will have affected the prosperity of not only farmers themselves but also the upstream and downstream businesses that are dependent on farming. Purchasing power would have been boosted by off-farm employment opportunities in the “Celtic Tiger” years but in the last 5 years this ‘safety valve’ did not exist. Demographic changes in farming Another important driver of change is demography. Next we contrast the age structure of farmers in the Parish with the national picture. By 2011 about 50% of farmers in the Parish were aged 60 years and more. This had increased from a little over 30% just five years earlier. The corresponding national figure for 2011 is about 30% and the increase in this age bracket is much lower in the country as a whole than in the Parish. The absence of successors on farms could lead to greater levels of consolidation, either through land sales or, more likely, land renting. The coming years will, necessarily, see the transfer of land to younger holders/farmers. Remarkably, the CSO data from 2011 tells us that there are less than 20 farmers in the parish below 40 years of age. The household structure of the farm population in the parish reflects the elderly age profile of farmers. 39% of household comprise either those living alone or households without children (empty nests). The national figure is 32%.
  • 13. 13 There are twenty farm households with children over the age of 19 and 21 with children under 19 years of age. For every female farmer in 2011 in the Parish there were 12 male farmers. Nationally the figure was about 10. Female farmers are in general older than their male counterparts. This generally reflects the transfer of land to female spouses on the death of their partners. In many places, female land holders rent out substantial parts of their farm land. Within the Parish we see a ratio of females to males of between 1:15 and 1:20 in the east and a ratio of 1:10 and 1:14 in the west.
  • 14. 14 Discussion: continuity and change Though farming in the area has transformed over the past three decades through limited consolidation and substantial specialisation, in other respects it remains largely unchanged. Family ownership, management and operation of the land/farm remains at the heart of farming in Borris-Isleigh. The continuity of ownership and, particularly, operation of land remains largely unchanged – it was and remains the preserve of family farms. The practice of farming the land through the exploitation of the strengths of family ties ensure the continuity of behaviours, norms and practices that produce the landscape that frames our sense of place and community identity. These practices are not impervious to change as we’ve seen. The relatively slow pace of change in farming is set against a fast changing economic and climatic environment. The coming years will see farm businesses and by extension, farm households, more exposed than ever to the vagaries of the market place. This will, most likely, drive further farm consolidation and specialisation. The abolition of the milk quota next year will, more than likely, accelerate the pace of change. Much of this consolidation is likely, certainly in the short term, to occur through the rental market. Social change resulting from farm succession and land ownership will also prompt different or new approaches to farming, e.g. collaborative farming. The theme of this paper has been about continuity and change. The best indicator of continuity in farming in the Parish is the pattern of surnames in the Parish as revealed by the 1911 census. In the first of the next two charts we exhibit the distribution of surnames in the ED of Borrisoleigh. In the second chart we present a word cloud of the surnames which depicts the frequency of surnames in the ED. In both charts it is evident that little has changed in over a hundred years in the ownership of land at any rate.
  • 15. 15 Finally, in our research for this paper we could only find one reference to Borrisoleigh in the National Cultural Heritage Database. We nonetheless thought it was worth presenting.
  • 16. 16