Food Wise 2025 maps out a 10-year vision for the Irish agri-food industry. The report identifies key areas such as sustainability, human capital, competitiveness, market development and innovation to drive growth opportunities in the years up to 2025.
Under the ‘human capital’ banner, the availability of labour and skill needs at farm level has been identified by a number of stakeholders as a major challenge for the industry to overcome.
During the Celtic Tiger years building sites were full of farm operatives, farm managers, even farmers as the attractive pay packets, regular hours and bank holidays proved more attractive than a 60-hour week on the farm.
Today in major towns and cities around the country the hard hats and high vis vests are back at service station deli counters; this is bad news for Irish farmers and the agri-food industry in general.
Initial studies carried out by Teagasc are predicting over 6,000 people will be needed to enter the dairy industry over the next nine years to replace retiring farmers and to meet the labour demands of larger scale dairy farms. The American dairy farmers have Mexicans, the New Zealanders have Filipinos – where are Irish farm workers going to come from?
In the past, a hidden work force was called upon to pull out the stops when help was needed on farm. Spouses, children, parents, siblings, neighbours and even visitors were called upon to lend a hand for TB testing, moving or dosing cattle, sheep shearing and stacking bales.
These days are well and truly gone. The onset of J1 visas, summer colleges and vacations abroad are good excuses for the teenagers to skip farm work. Farmer spouses generally have their own careers and the rest are simply too busy to lend a hand.
The historical small size of Irish farms has ensured Irish farmers have little or no experience of employing and retaining farm labour.
In contrast, our neighbours in Britain have extensive experience of employing and managing farm labour on their estates and large farms.
There certainly is a skills deficit to fill among Irish farmers but, if there are no people willing to work on Irish farms, it is a case of putting the cart before the horse – training farmers to manage labour is no use if the labour is not there in the first place.
So how do we solve this imminent problem?
Firstly, we need to set up a specialised task force to carry out a detailed study of the supply and demand for farm labour, then we need to make a plan.
There are two main areas to examine for attracting additional labour on-farm – inside the country and outside the country.
Inside the country, part-time farmers with spare time could work on neighbouring dairy farms.
They would have the livestock husbandry skills and it may also suit the inbuilt seasonality problem of the spring system of production.
Smaller dairy farmers wanting to earn more money could be accommodated on larger dairy farms instead of working on the aforementioned building sites.
There is also potential for part-time jobs on farms for stay at home mums while children are at school – this works very well in the egg industry.
When we examine opportunities for farm labour from outside the country, we immediately think of the many excellent Eastern European farm managers, assistant managers and operatives working on Irish farms today.
Free movement of labour within the EU has created this opportunity.
However, recruitment companies say the flow has slowed down considerably as the economies in their own countries improve.
Looking to recruit from outside the EU is next to impossible with EU and national regulation.
There are many farmers and farm operatives in Brazil, Argentina, South Africa, The Philippines etc who would love the opportunity to work for a period on an Irish farm. The options of internships, apprenticeships, student exchanges etc would be mutually beneficial to all concerned and should be embraced by government.
Exchange programmes with seasonal southern hemisphere dairy farmers would certainly fit the dairy farming calendar.
These are just a selection of the many avenues available to the industry and government to avert this problem before it sucks the life out of our ambitious expanding dairy farmers. A stitch in time saves nine.