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Opinion by Rachel Martin

Beef Across the Atlantic – Challenges and Life in Northern Ireland’s Green Fields

By Rachel Martin, International Farm Youth Exchange Delegate

Compared to Northern U.S., Northern Ireland’s farms are much smaller with an average farm size of just 98 acres. The Northern Irish landscape is mainly grassland stretched across drumlin hills – small, gently rolling hills with a rock substructure. These hills are characteristic of the country and their shape is said to resemble the rounded bumps on the top of a basket of eggs. Most land is divided into fields of up to 15 acres, and fields are separated using a combination wire fences and thorn hedges, which provide wind shelter and also additional strength against livestock. Where ground is stony, stonewalls are often used for field boundaries.

Much of the province’s ground is used for arable, beef, sheep and dairy farming, with over 70 percent of land in Northern Ireland used for agricultural purposes. Agriculture employs 3.3 percent of the population, compared to just 1.2 percent in the rest of the United Kingdom. 

A challenge facing agriculture in Northern Ireland is the number of young people continuing their family businesses. Full time labor on Northern Irish farms has decreased over the past two decades, with around 10,000 fewer full time workers reported in the industry in 2011. This may be due to the use of more efficient machinery on farms or fewer young people perceiving farming as an attractive career. Many of the next generation of farmers in the country now seek a university education as a back up, in case the farm fails. This allows an easier break away from agriculture when challenges arise. The industry may, in future years, find that fewer young people are prepared to remain within the industry when faced with difficult decisions about their farm viability, choosing to break away or diversify as easier alternatives.

Beef and sheep meat are the largest export for the region earning £761 million ($1.19 billion) in 2012, whilst the second largest export, milk and dairy products, earned the province a total of £604 million ($9.47 billion) last year in sales outside Northern Ireland. 

Challenges currently affecting livestock farmers on the island include the European Union lead nitrates and phosphorous regulations. The regulations, which were brought into action in 2007, effect the spreading and storage of slurry, or liquid manure, during winter months and ban spreading manure effective from Oct. 15 to Feb. 1, annually. The initiative also effects the spreading of chemical fertilizer near waterways and on steeply sloping land, as well as the field storage of poultry litter.

However, the regulations have many benefits for the environment and are measures taken to prevent eutrophication of the island’s waterways caused by the run off of effluent and slurry when applied to already saturated ground – a common problem in a country where heavy rainfall is expected during all four seasons.

The regulations put pressure on farmers to ensure adequate storage is available for slurry, and inflexibility with the ban’s effective dates means that bad weather during the spreading season can cause issues with slurry storage for the following year. Farmers argue that the guidelines’ inflexibility is unfair as, in a region with such a changeable climate, it is impossible to farm by calendar. Statistically, rain can be expected every other day in Northern Ireland, with snow now also expected during the winter months. Due to an unexpected amount of snowfall last winter, last year’s spreading season was extended for farmers with exceptional circumstances for the first time since the ban was introduced. As farmers house livestock in sheds during the winter months, providing adequate slurry storage has become an issue.

However, despite some bureaucratic challenges, Northern Ireland remains a productive area to farm, with flat and fertile ground and a mild climate, meaning that the region does not suffer extreme summers or winters. Along with the frequent rain, this provides good growing conditions for pasture. 

Additionally, organizations such as Young Farmers’ Clubs of Ulster seek to encourage young people to consider taking on roles in the industry and provides vocational training such as hoof trimming and sheep shearing courses. Diversification courses, such as floristry, are also available and appeal to those who would like to work their family farm but also would like to add value to their business.

Rachel Martin, an International Farm Youth Exchange delegate from Northern Ireland, reports on her country’s agricultural industry and some of the challenges farmers in the small country 6000 miles across the Atlantic currently face.