What constitutes an institution in this country? There was a time when the GAA and a certain other entity were foremost among them. A certain drink, the man whose name it carries recently having a day dedicated to him, would have to rank up there too. For those of us with farming in the blood or even an interest in agricultural matters, the National Ploughing Championships merit inclusion as well.
During the recently held incarnation in Wexford, a more eminent observer than I noted that it was the one week in the year that farming becomes big news on a broad scale. It was also noted that there’s an element of society with whom that coverage doesn’t sit too well. Then again, these are usually the type of folk who object to everything!
What the Ploughing Championships do is afford an important window to a special part of Irish life. Anna May McHugh has steadfastly presided over, promoted and guided an event that is a national treasure and deserves to be seen as such. And, as is often the way with farming matters, it has been passed on to the next generation, with Anna Marie McHugh also now heavily involved.
The important point to be made about the event is that it’s not just about the ploughing and the machinery. For instance, this year, even with the dire weather, it’s estimated 200,000 attended. It goes without saying that, whether it be buying machinery, shopping at the other trade stands, buying food or drink or seeking accommodation in the area, the gain for the local – and by extension national – economy is enormous.
Highlighting these facts now is timely and important. It has been at least mooted that members of farm families may be means tested for college grants. This surely cannot happen. The ‘big rich farmer’ gag simply doesn’t stick anymore. If it ever did. There’s hardly another sector where income is more volatile.
Cattle prices in the marts have indeed hit unprecedented levels. But that might only be a flicker of brightness on a cloudy horizon. This harvest season was very difficult both in terms of actually getting it done and returns. Crop yields and quality were well back. Even in terms of hay and silage. This corner can attest that a farm that yielded 125 round bales of hay last term only delivered 58 this time up.
Dire weather also led to stock being re-housed during the ‘summer’ months. Several times in some places. Which in turn meant that fodder reserves were already being delved into months before would be intended. And, like everything else, increased demand leads to higher prices. Thus putting further strain on already fluctuating finances.
So, the notion the farmers are notoriously wealthy simply doesn’t wash. Indeed, yours truly recently came across a programme that was a timely reminder of how important farming has always been and hopefully will always be in this country. Only, it must be said, after being pointed in the direction of the particular show on TG4 thanks to TV3’s Maura Derrane on Twitter! Now, while the programme was originally aired in the mid ‘90’s on RTE before the Irish language station arrived, it was still great viewing for anyone with even a passing interest in such things.
It centred on a few elderly farmers on one of the Aran Islands going about things old way. From calving a cow (which had already produced 11 calves) by hand with neighbourly help, to drying cow dung and stacking it for heating fuel. Of course, men are still needed to assist calving, but there was something special about the way the veterans were going about it.
Apart from all that, the programme offered an insight into a part of Ireland that could sadly be lost if the farming generations are not continued. Things like being au fait farming life. Calving cows the old way, different foddering methods, cutting and footing turf the old way, thatching roves and the like. One of the more poignant parts of the programme was when one of the elderly farmers fears that much of the island way of life will be lost as all the young people leave the island. The sentiment applies in farming terms to more places than the island.
You’re probably wondering what all this has to do with the proposed means test. Simply that the perception those outside of farming have of it is wide of the mark. It could, however turn out to be a vital component in turning this country around. In times when opportunities in other sectors are not as plentiful as perhaps they once were there’s a real need to be careful with a special part of our culture and not pick on it as an easy target!