The data presented thus far highlight the decline in agricultural employment, they do not, however, provide any indication of the impact of the economic downturn on farmers that engage in off-farm employment. The most recent data from the National Farm Survey (NFS), relating to 2008, indicate that 40% of all farmers held an off-farm job (Connolly et al., 2009). For these individuals, off-farm income accounted for 71% of their total household income, highlighting the vital importance of off-farm employment to farm households and in contributing to the viability of the farm enterprise.

Data made available by the CSO from the Quarterly National Household Survey (QNHS) enables an assessment of the impact of recent developments on off-farm employment. The QNHS records an individual’s primary and, where they have another source of employment, secondary occupation. Analysis of the total number of persons with a secondary job in agriculture, meaning that they are part-time farming, in Q2-2008 and Q2-2009 highlights a fall of 6,900 or 30.5%, from 22,600 to 15,700, in the 12 months to Q2-2009. This development resulted in a reduction in the proportion of all farmers with off-farm income from 19.8% to 16.1%.

Of the 22,600 persons with a secondary job in agriculture and a primary job off-farm, 57.5% were employed in agriculture, forestry or fishing, industry or construction as of Q2-2008 (Figure 1). A detailed assessment of changes in the sectoral composition of off-farm employment highlights the variance in the numbers loosing their jobs depending on which sector they worked in. Unsurprisingly, those working in construction, the most important off-farm employment sector, witnessed the greatest fall in employment (Figure 1).  By Q2-2009 the proportion of farmers with an off-farm job in construction had fallen from 29.2% to 19.75% in the space of 12 months and accounted for 50.7% of the total reduction in off-farm employment recorded by the QNHS during this period.

Changes in the number of farmers with off-farm jobs Q2-2008 - Q2-2009

Placing the declines in off-farm employment within the national context of increasing unemployment one finds that those with a secondary job in agriculture, in general, face a greater risk of unemployment. Nationally, the number of persons employed declined from 2,117,000 to 1,944,900 million persons, a reduction of 8.1%. For those with a secondary job in agriculture, the reduction was 30.5%. By way of example, within the national workforce, for every 1000 persons employed in the construction sector in Q2-2008, 350 had lost their jobs one year later. The equivalent figure amongst part-time farmers was 530. Two key factors are thought to influence the level of exposure to unemployment; education and skill levels and geographic location relative to employment opportunities. Research undertaken by Behan and O’Brien (2007) established that education qualifications amongst farmers are, in general, low with 70% of all farmers recording lower-secondary education as their highest qualification. As of 2006 only 6% of farmers had a third level degree (Behan and O’Brien, 2007, p.151). Dillon et al. (2009) found that those within the workforce with low education and skill levels are more likely to become unemployed and spend longer periods being unemployed.

These analysis presented in this paper points to significant and rapid economic change in Ireland and the impacts of these developments on part-time farmers. Whilst the declines in off-farm employment recorded in the QNHS are unsurprising given the rapid deterioration of the Irish economy over the course of the period Q2-2008 – Q2-2009 they are of significant concern given the extent to which off-farm income supports the viability of many farms. Given the likely difficulty for many farmers who depended on off-farm employment to secure new employment there is a clear need for a strategy to develop the rural economy, thereby creating employment opportunities, through diversification of traditional rural industries. Parallel to this process is the need to further develop the existing, formal and informal, skills of farmers to enable them to participate in the development of the rural economy.

David Meredith