The farm contracting industry in Ireland is facing a period of uncertainty as high-profile businesses sell up and dealers report a renewed interest in farmers taking back control of the timeliness of operations. The high price of machinery has both deterred the purchase of new equipment and made the disposal of current fleets an attractive proposition. John Hughes of Kilkenny, who heads the Association of Farm and Forestry Contractors in Ireland (FCI), is fully aware of the situation and as a staunch advocate of the industry, he identifies some major concerns within farm contracting that need to be addressed urgently, if it is not already too late.
The first major concern is staffing. This issue has many facets and picking a way through the jungle reveals a whole host of seemingly intractable problems starting with the disinclination of school leavers to consider working within the industry. John sees a major reason for this as there being no clear career path. It is seen as a job involving long unsociable hours that are not commensurate with lacklustre rewards, rather than a bright shiny future that involves a decent lifestyle. This problem is compounded by the need for people with a good technical ability. Modern tractors may be wonderful things, but unless they can be set up to work at their optimum efficiency, all the techno ‘bling’ is wasted, it requires a level of expertise which is just not readily available at present.
John is adamant that the first step to attracting young people into the business is a proper training structure with a well-defined progression. By this, he means that the explanation of how a new tractor works should extend way beyond the couple of hours with a mechanic that usually passes for instruction. He would like to see colleges become far more involved with bringing operatives up-to-date with the latest equipment, yet they will need to equip their own staff with the relevant skills and knowledge before being able to pass it on. Fears of future staff shortages are fuelled to a great extent by the aging of the industry’s present workforce.
One answer to staffing problems is bigger machinery to cover more ground with the same man-hours, yet the same problems of staffing the business beset farmers as well, so this situation cannot continue. The answer he would like to see implemented is greater professionalism throughout contracting. This can only happen if contracting is seen as a valid industry by the government, and to a certain extent, farmers as well.
The FCI has been calling for meetings with the Department of Finance as well as Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (DAFM) for months in a bid to have the tax breaks enjoyed by farmers shared by contractors, yet they are forever being put on the long finger. John and the FCI members find this incredibly frustrating, and he personally feels that a good deal more needs to be done to get farm contracting recognised as an essential element of the food production chain. They would also like to see farmers showing a little more understanding of the predicament that contractors often find themselves in.
Another strong criticism he has is of subsidies such as Targeted Agricultural Modernisation Scheme (TAMS) which, he argues, actually drive up the price of machinery. His reasoning is straightforward. If a machine attracts a grant, then it encourages a farmer to buy it at full price, and that price is likely to creep up as the machinery trade takes advantage of the governments generosity. The flush of used machinery on the market also means that the farmer will get a lower trade-in for his older equipment, offsetting the subsidy to a certain degree. It also puts the contractor in the position of having to pay more for machinery, which in turn leads to higher contracting charges. Subsidies may not be the golden goose that many think they are.
Naturally, when the farm contracting industry is being discussed, the thorny issue of charges will arise and there is no doubt in John’s mind that many contractors are doing both themselves, and the industry as a whole, a disservice. As the head of the industry’s major representative body, this is only to be expected, yet the points that are made remain valid and should not be dismissed too lightly. Investment in new machinery is essential if the industry is to remain competitive, but this needs to be weighed against the costs of ownership and the likely returns on investment.
In conclusion, the farm contracting industry in Ireland is facing a period of uncertainty, but there are solutions to the problems that beset it. The need for greater professionalism, better training, and a recognition of the industry’s importance by government and farmers alike are key to its future success.