Farm Relief Services highlights critical labour shortage

Irish dairy farming is facing a critical shortage of trained, skilled and adaptable workers to meet the ambitious development targets of Food 2020 and its successor, Food Wise 2025.

That was the stark message conveyed to the Minister for Agriculture, Michael Creed, by Peter Byrne, CEO of FRS Network in a recent submission on the issue.

As the single biggest supplier of farm labour in Ireland, it’s experiencing severe difficulties in sourcing sufficient suitable workers to meet growing demand.

“The need for human capital has been identified as one of the limiting factors in the Irish dairy industry reaching its full potential,” the submission, presented in January, stated.

It called for an all-industry approach, with the Department of Agriculture to take a lead role in addressing the contributory factors.

These include the economic upturn; competition from other industries with higher pay; reduced numbers coming from Eastern Europe; a lack of reciprocal arrangements or exchange programmes with countries like New Zealand and Australia; and work permit issues for some countries such as the Phillipines.

Other difficulties, the submission stated, include: seasonality; a decrease in the number of agricultural college students;  lack of specific training in hands-on farming skills other than the one-year course in agricultural colleges or very short courses like the milking training where participants need basic skills before they can attend; and greater demand from dairy farmers as herd sizes increase.

FRS suggested that the Department works with New Zealand and Irish colleges to develop an exchange programme that could be broadened to non-college students.

There should be emphasis, it said, on induction training on a model farm, leading to on-farm work experience placement during the busy spring season – through FRS (Farm Relief Services) in Ireland.

There is an on-farm skills training gap, according to FRS. It pinpointed a lack of adequate support for trainees and people who want to get into farming to get hands-on skills.

dairy young farmers

A model farm or farms could run subsidised training to close the skills gap, it was suggested.

Currently agriculture graduates are returning to work on home farms or are progressing with their studies to degree level, according to FRS. They are not getting adequate training to progress to work as dairy relief workers, it said.

A gap, FRS contended, needs to be closed by setting up a routeway to work on farms through an internship programme. It proposes that FRS could be the link between the student and the work, and develop this programme with colleges.

An extensive study on the supply and demand within the farm labour market should be conducted, with consultation involving all relevant parties, FRS recommended.

FRS said it is willing to organise and manage this research project in conjunction with other interested parties. The financial support of the Department would be important, it said.

Collaboration among the key agri-industy players is vital to support farmers at the farm-gate, FRS said.

Labour market factors are forcing the cost of labour upwards, particularly in relation to farm work. The demand is high but the supply is low, as potential workers are taking jobs in other industries such as construction.

“The issue is that other industries can pass the cost of labour onto the customer when pricing the job, but in reality the farmer cannot afford to compete with outside industries for the same pool of workers.

“Similarly, it could be argued that farmers have been supporting the developments of the various agricultural industry stakeholders through milk prices and levies.

“The proposal is to give support back to the farmer in the form of labour support. This could take the form of funding to support the upskilling through training (and the model farm), research and development, and any other innovative approaches,” FRS said.

Irish dairying requires at least 5,000 full-time equivalents over the next nine years to sustainably manage increased cow numbers, according to FRS.

While 600 full-time equivalents are needed per year to 2025, the current supply of young graduates is less than 300 people per year, with an estimated 60% returning to work on home farms.

In the last round of CAO applications, agriculture was down 20%, FRS said. Most students only complete six months or less work on farms during Teagasc, IT, or university courses.

Many complete the Green Cert to be compliant for schemes and inheritance rules and not to engage in careers on dairy farms, according to FRS.

Peter Byrne of FRS said there had been a positive response from the Minister, with the Department hosting a meeting involving other government departments; Teagasc; the farming organisations and FRS.

Future follow-up

The shortages right across dairy farming from owner/manager level to workers, were discussed. Byrne said he hoped further follow-up meetings would be held shortly.

“FRS is continuing to do its own research and is working on solutions to source people. Everybody needs to think outside the box,” he said.

“In particular, FRS is putting a lot of resources into sourcing people for the coming year from within the country; within the EU; and even outside the EU.”