Farming Families

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Farming Families

By the 1960s Irish agricultural policy involved the existence of an ever-greater number of schemes to support the occupants of farms. Survival, not prosperous expansion, remained the goal of the majority of Irish farmers, most of whom resided on small farms that had been created or sanctioned by the state. These farming families were profoundly affected by ideological and economic division on the role of agriculture within Irish society. The struggle to reconcile the demands of modern society with the emotions and traditions of the past acutely influenced the country's agriculture. The ideal of Gaelic, industrious, prosperous (though not materialistic) farmsteads filling the countryside with an ancient and dignified way of life was fundamentally at odds with the forces governing the realities of rural life. Repeated insistence that agriculture would provide the engine of economic expansion, bringing prosperity to all the citizens of the state, ignored global trading patterns. Yet, political demands, as well as genuine fidelity to an inherited dream, severely restricted moves to restructure the Irish agricultural economy; for example, the policy of land division was continued long after it became apparent that such a policy was economically unsound.

In terms of price and accessibility, only the export of cattle to Britain offered a substantial and viable trade with a profit margin worthy of the name. The production of cattle for export, however, necessitated an extensive-farming pattern inimical to the prospects of constructing a vibrant small-farming community. Irish agriculture lived in the shadow of this conflict between economic and social needs. In essence, the expectation that agriculture could both drive the economy through export earnings and simultaneously preserve a way of life that was progressively less profitable was illconceived. Like all other countries, Ireland wrestled with the dilemma of viewing agriculture as either a business or a way of life, and the Irish unequivocally regarded it as both. Ultimately, agricultural policy made no attempt to distinguish between farmers seeking assistance to improve the competitiveness of Irish produce on the international market and farmers to whom assistance was socially motivated.

Where other countries freed workers from agriculture to provide labor for industrial development, the Irish constitutional, legislative, and ideological commitment to retain on the land as many families as possible was complemented by the lack of an industrial sector of any note. Farming families suffered grievously from the failure of Irish industry to contribute to the economy on anything approaching the scale achieved in Western Europe and the United States. Irish farms traditionally absorbed far more labor than they could justifiably employ, and the extended retention of family members restricted any moves toward rationalization of the agrarian structure. Throughout the 1950s huge numbers of these previously hidden, underemployed family members left the land and emigrated. As Irish industry developed through the 1960s, more of those born on farms found work in Irish cities, but the percentage was again far below the European average. Furthermore, foreign currency earned by agricultural exports was used to subsidize industrial development, while farmers also supported the inefficient chemical and fertilizer industries by paying prices above the world market. Most crucially, Ireland was unable to offer its farmers price supports funded from industrial earnings, as Britain and the United States did.

By the late 1960s a succession of Programmes for Economic Expansion had shifted the position of agriculture within Irish society. Agriculture had modernized, but far too slowly to satisfy the evolving materialist needs of Irish society, and it was displaced by industry as the fulcrum of the Irish economy. Inevitably, the sheer scale of agriculture in the 1960s ensured that it retained a formidable position in Irish society, and it has continued to do so in the decades since then. The influence of the farming community has waned considerably, however, and the significance of farming within the Irish economy has declined, too. Various independent farmers' bodies sought to oppose this diminution. The Irish Farmers' Association and the Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers' Association continuously campaigned for the economic advancement of farmers, and such organizations as Macra na Feirme and the Irish Countrywomen's Association offered a social outlet to young and female farmers, who often were isolated in rural areas. This voluntary sector was vital in improving the morale of farmers, but it was a constant struggle.

It was as much the experience of what happened outside farming as what happened inside it that influenced farming life. Farmers' incomes rose throughout the 1960s and in every decade after that, but, significantly, the gap between those in agricultural and in nonagricultural employment widened considerably as industrial workers continuously increased their purchasing power. The Irish state now sought to support farmers and to contain the growing disparity of income between families living in rural and in urban areas. Central to those attempts at containment was entry into the EEC. Farming organizations had campaigned in favor of Irish membership since the 1950s, and following Ireland's accession in 1973, farmers benefited from the range of measures comprised in the EEC's Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Of all the nations in the EEC, Ireland has received the most money for its farmers, through a plethora of schemes including market-price supports and headage and premia payments (broadly comprising payments related to the number of animals owned by a farmer). Funds from Europe were complemented by payments from the Irish exchequer, and by 1998 direct payments made up 56 percent of aggregate farm income in Ireland. Even attempts to reform the CAP have not unduly affected Irish agriculture, and in 1997 money from Europe amounted to 1.7 billion pounds, or 4 percent of GNP. Essentially, entry into the EEC allowed Ireland to fund its public-policy aim of transferring income to the farming community, which in 1973 still constituted 22 percent of the workforce. There remains considerable criticism that income-support policies—particularly through price supports—have not been successfully targeted, since 60 percent of total support goes to the top-earning 20 percent of farms.

Between the 1960s and the 1980s the number whose principal occupation was farming declined by almost 2 percent per annum, although many have held onto the land, and there has not been enormous consolidation of farms. With more than a quarter of Irish farms considered incapable of generating a viable income from farming alone, the importance of part-time farming has increased considerably since the 1960s and is crucial to the survival of many farming units. By the mid-1990s 27 percent of farmers had jobs away from the farm; the number reached 41 percent on small farms. Furthermore, 16 percent of women married to farmers also held off-farm employment. The involvement of either spouse in off-farm employment alters the traditional gender roles prevalent on Irish farms. The great majority of women become involved in farming either through marriage or through the exceptional circumstance of inheriting a farm in the absence of a male heir. Women marrying into a farm usually encounter long-established structures, and are expected to preserve them by creating, in turn, their own farm families. A wife's involvement in off-farm employment significantly alters the traditional pattern. Similarly, when her husband is involved in off-farm employment, the woman assumes a more central role in day-to-day farm management, becoming the de facto farm manager. It was only in 1991 that the Central Statistics Office included the labor of farm wives in the agricultural census, and this demonstrated that women contributed a minimum of 20 percent of all labor on family farms. Significantly, farm women are credited with the exceptional performance of farm children in third-level education (where they are overrepresented), enabling them to avail themselves of professional or skilled jobs rather than in agriculture. As a result, fewer offspring from farm families are dependent on the land for income, substantiating the unmistakable reality that Ireland continues to shed its agricultural past in pursuit of an industrial and technological future. Farm households fell from 22 percent of total population in 1973 to less than 5 percent in 1997, and continue to fall sharply. Global trends and the sands of time have proved impossible to stem, let alone reverse, and agrarian Ireland seems set to suffer a long fade in its importance.

SEE ALSO Agriculture: After World War I; Common Agricultural Policy; Equal Economic Rights for Women in Independent Ireland; Family: Fertility, Marriage, and the Family since 1950; Health and Welfare since 1950, State Provisions for; Women and Work since the Mid-Nineteenth Century; Women in Irish Society since 1800


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Paul Rouse

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Farming Families

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