A NATION AT THE PLOUGH; It Is Everything the Celtic Tiger Was Not. but Farming Is Still the Beating Heart of This Country, and We Need Its Values More Than Ever
Byline: by Paul D'Alton
IT IS the Oscars of the farming world - starting yesterday, the annual, weeklong festival of the National Ploughing Championships is taking place near Athy, Co. Kildare.
For the thousands of contestants and visitors from all over the country travelling to Fennin Farm, it is a chance to display not just the inherited skills honed from generations of backbreaking, arduous work on the fields.
Rather, it is also a very public declaration by those involved that, in the midst of the worst recession in living memory, Irish agriculture is, quite literally, alive and kicking.
It is easy to dismiss the event as an archaic symbol of an Ireland which no longer exists.
Some say it is nothing other than a rural anachronism, a quaint throwback to bygone days, one still so often dismissed as irrelevant in a nation transformed by the Celtic Tiger, subsumed and swamped by our rush to greed and profit.
Relics It represents a lifestyle and chapter in our history which appears moribund while we as a nation are now stuck ankledeep in economic mud as thick as a badly-ploughed field in winter.
And that, curiously, is the vivid juxtaposition of this week's festivities in Co. Kildare.
Because, ironically, where for the last decade or so those who worked the fields were haughtily viewed as peasant relics, the current economic crisis, and especially the utter disintegration of the construction industry, is unquestionably seeing a return to the land by thousands blighted by unemployment.
So much so in fact that, if financial experts are to be believed, many of us are returning to our roots by necessity.
As recently as three years ago, particularly in the far-flung provinces of Munster and Connacht, those brought up in the heart of the country were riding on the back of the-then economic wave, spurning the ancient profession of their grandfathers.
Now, once more, they find themselves riding behind the wheel of a tractor.
It is almost as if we have come full circle. Certainly, in an encouraging fillip to be welcomed in these desperate times, the prospects for the agricultural sector - which overall employs ten per cent of the Irish workforce - appear remarkably positive. The ancient tractors on display in Athy might not be relics after all.
Earlier this month, a conference organised by Teagasc found that, due to global economic factors, the prospects for Irish agriculture and the 130,000 or so who work in it appear remarkably more resilient than many other parts of the economy.
In the byzantine world of agro-economics, it is factors such as the Russian government's banning of wheat exports, and recent poor harvests in the U.S. which have hugely benefited Irish wheat farmers. In language more reminiscent of a stock market trader, Kildare farmer Phillip Doyle described recent moves in the farming sector as 'encouraging'. Witness to the tentative revival of the industry, Mr Doyle watches the global market prices closely and he likes what he sees. He said: 'I trade my grain every month of the year but I don't make my decisions lightly before committing to a sale.' It is a sense of optimism not only woefully lacking elsewhere in the country, but also one further boosted by global trends.
Buoyant A further Teagasc report predicts that, after a slump in 2009, a whole array of farming produce looks set to improve in value. A strong recovery in consumer demand for butter and milk is one of the first green shoots to suddenly appear. By early this summer, milk prices had risen from 27 cent per litre to 30 cent, a significant addition in value to 2009 prices.
Currently, many other indicators remain encouraging. Feed and fertiliser prices have bottomed out. Add to that the rise in cereal prices and a buoyant demand for lamb products and you get a picture of Irish farming which suggests that as the going has got tough, the farmers are, at least, still going. …