Need for off-farm income ‘a fact of life’ for drystock farmers

The need for off-farm income is just “a fact of life” for most drystock farmers, the director of Teagasc, Prof. Gerry Boyle, said yesterday.

He made the comments as Teagasc published the preliminary results of its National Farm Survey (NFS) for 2017.

Prof. Boyle admitted that a two-tier structure in agriculture has become apparent.

In relation to farm enterprise, he said: “You’ve got dairy versus the rest. Even if you look at tillage – which traditionally was a close competitor with dairy – it has slipped back down dramatically.

“The average [tillage] income in 2017 was about €37,000; which, given the size of these farms and given their dependency on direct payments, is a pretty poor return.

If you look then at the drystock sectors, it is well known that the income levels are very poor. Certainly it wouldn’t be enough, by any manner of means, to be adequate on a full-time basis.

“You have an income, for example, from beef fattening and sheep of about €17,000 – and about €12,500 for cattle rearing; bearing in mind that includes the direct payments.

“So obviously there are a lot of those farmers eating into the direct payments, so to speak. On most of those farms, that income wouldn’t be adequate to keep a family in any kind of reasonable existence; so those people have to work off-farm,” he said.

Striking a balance

Continuing, Prof. Boyle highlighted that it is possible for people to strike a balance between an off-farm job and an on-farm job.

“In fact, some of the best drystock farmers you will find have off-farm employment. The one thing they have learned is to manage their time very well. So I wouldn’t see it as a negative.

It’s just a fact of life that you need a really, really big farm to get an adequate, full-time income from a drystock farm. It’s just that the margins are so low.

However, the director of Teagasc expressed concerns for farmers who did not have any off-farm employment and who were “struggling to eke out an existence”.

Significance of off-farm employment

Teagasc’s NFS found that just over half (51%) of farm households were in receipt of an off-farm employment income source in 2017; this represented a two percentage point increase on the previous year.

The increase is reflective of an increased proportion of both farm holders (31%) and spouses (50%) employed off-farm in 2017, it added.

Meanwhile, a further 27% of households are in receipt of a pension; this was most common on drystock farms at approximately 32%, compared to 11% on dairy farms and 22% on tillage farms, Teagasc explained.

The survey also showed that farmers in the border, midlands and west were more likely to be employed off-farm in 2017.

Image source: Teagasc NFS

On the other hand, only 16% of farmers in the south-west had an off-farm job, the survey found.