The numbers employed in agriculture initially declined from roughly 114,000 to 110,000 between 2004 and 2005 and thereafter remained at this level until Q3 2007. From late 2007 to the end of 2008 agricultural employment increased to 115,000 before witnessing a rapid decline during 2009 to a low of 98,000. These trends track developments in the wider economy with declining agricultural employment (2004 – 2007) corresponding to increasing off-farm employment opportunities. With the fall in non-agricultural employment opportunities from 2007 onwards it is possible that those working off-farm re-engaged in agriculture on a fulltime basis thereby accounting for some of the increase in the total number employed in the sector. A secondary factor that may have contributed to the increase in employment during this period was the significant growth in commodity prices. Since the beginning of 2009, the numbers employed in agriculture have fallen from the Q4-2008 high by 15.43%. This fall brings the number of people employed in agriculture, expressed as a proportion of the total workforce, to 5.03%, the lowest level recorded during the 2004 – 2009 period. The trend in agricultural employment indicates that not only are the absolute numbers working in the industry falling, so to is the sector’s relative share of total employment as other industries continue to hold employment, and in a number of instances grow, despite the economic downturn.

An evaluation of the structure of employment in the agriculture sector highlights the primary driver of the change between Q2-2008 and Q2-2009 is a fall in the number of self-employed workers followed by a decline in the number of employees. During the 12 months in question, the total number of people employed in the agriculture sector fell by 17,600. The reduction in the number of self-employed individuals, from 87,100 to 74,900, accounts for 69.3% of the total fall in the agricultural workforce. A further 30.1% of the decline is accounted for by the reduction in the number of employees (-5,300 persons). Finally, there was a small drop, -100, in the number of persons ‘assisting relatives’. These results represent a significant development. Whereas, in the past, agriculture was viewed as an industry with the means of soaking up unemployed males in rural areas, it is apparent that this is not currently the case as evidenced by the decline in both employees and those assisting relatives.

David Meredith