President officially opens the 2013 National Ploughing Championships

Published: Thu 12th Sep, 2013 | 12:44

Address By President Michael D. Higgins
At The 2013 National Ploughing Championships,
Ratheniska, Stradbally, Co. Laois
Tuesday, 24th September 2013

t gives me great pleasure to be here with you all today, at the eighty-second National Ploughing Championships. It was 1943 when this beloved rendez-vous in the rural calendar was last held in the townland of Ratheniska, County Laois. During the seventy years that have since elapsed, the Championships have grown to become Ireland’s largest outdoor event, attracting more than 180,000 visitors last year. This attendance was achieved despite poor weather – in contrast to the glorious autumn weather we are enjoying these days.

Ba mhaith liom comhghairdeas a ghabháil le Cumann Treabhdóireachta na hÉireann agus lena Stiúrthóir Bainistíochta le daichead bliain anuas, Anna May McHugh, arb é a díograis agus a proifisiúntacht bhuan-sheasmhach a chuireann ar ár gcumas pléisiúr a bhaint as an ócáid seo in athuair bliain i ndiaidh bliana. Thairis sin, ba mhaith liom buíochas speisialta a ghabháil lenár n-óstaigh don trí lá seo, muintir Chartúir, agus leis na feirmeoirí uilig máguaird a chuir a gcuid tailte ar fáil le haghaidh treabhdóireachta agus loctha feithiclí.

[May I to congratulate the National Ploughing Association’s team and its Managing Director of four decades, Anna May McHugh, whose enthusiasm and unfaltering professionalism allow us, year after year, to take renewed pleasure in this event. I also wish to extend particular thanks to our hosts during these three days, the Carter family, and to all the neighbouring farmers who have made their land available for ploughing and parking.]

Of course this year’s Championships would not have happened without the hard work of the Laois Ploughing Association and the help of the five hundred volunteers who have travelled from across the country to act as judges, supervisors or stewards: to each and every one of you, I offer our thanks for your valuable contribution.

I must say that I have greatly enjoyed all my visits to the National Ploughing Championships. It is a gathering that conjures up a world which, from the formative years I spent living on a small farm in Newmarket-on-Fergus in County Clare, is both familiar in my mind and dear to my heart.

By now, everyone across Ireland knows that the Ploughing Championships are a major national occasion but they often struggle to explain what exactly they are, and why they are so important and popular. The late and great Seán McConnell wittily answered these questions when he wrote:

“To those who attend no explanation is necessary; to those who do not, explanation is virtually impossible. Suffice to say, your education is incomplete unless you have been to one of these gatherings.”

The only question that is relevant is – “Are you going to the Ploughing?” For me, as for all visitors, the Championships are a convivial affair in which to meet old friends, enjoy the music and entertainment, acquaint oneself with the latest developments in machinery and farming techniques, taste a variety of delicious Irish food and get an overview of the best of Ireland’s agriculture.

These three days are a unique occasion on which people from across all the counties of Ireland mingle, discuss their achievements and concerns and, of course, admire the mastery and diligence of our contesting ploughmen.

The diversity of competition categories featured at the National Ploughing Championships – twenty-one this year – bears testimony to the impressive variation of skills involved in the art of ploughing. Conventional and reversible; single, double and triple-furrow ploughs; junior and senior: all these categories demonstrate the dexterity and versatility of Irish ploughmen.

These national talents were aptly reflected in the achievements of our new World Champions, John Whelan and Eamonn Tracey, who won the Gold and Bronze in their respective competitive classes at the World Ploughing Contest in Olds, Alberta, Canada, earlier this year. This is an achievement of which they, their family and Irish ploughing at large can indeed be very proud.

Such a performance attests to the culture of excellence that has ensured the success of Irish farming. Our agricultural sector not only plays an important role in providing for the domestic market, it has also proved able to conquer international markets. Irish beef, lamb and dairy have a well-established reputation internationally. Our agri-food sector, which last year exceeded €9.2 billion in exports and supports some 300,000 people in employment, has a central part to play in the long-term economic recovery that our people are working hard to achieve.

Mechanisation and technological innovation have played a decisive role in the modernisation of Irish farming. Over the last half a century, tractors have gradually displaced the age-old combination of horse and plough. The ploughs used nowadays on Irish farms bear little resemblance to those of the 1950s, and some of the tractors on display in these Championships are mighty machines indeed.

Yet some of our ploughmen continue to cherish their horses, as the staging of three horse plough classes shows. They do so out of love for that beautiful animal, the horse, but also because they – and our loy diggers alike – take pride and pleasure in keeping alive, and even perfecting, an ancient human skill.

This combination of tradition and innovation is the Championships’ recipe for success. More broadly, I believe that the attraction of this event for all those who attend it – both rural and urban dwellers, contestants and visitors – derives from the special place that the land and its care, and so many aspects of rural Irish life, hold in our history and in our hearts. Authentic and real, the breaking and tilling of soil must be cared for if it is to be passed on to future generations.

Rural Ireland is part of our identity. It is part of what we are as a people. Farming, as both nourishing work and a nurturing way of life, connects us to one of the most fundamental of human activities. The American poet and farmer Wendell Berry thus wrote that a good farmer is at once:

“husband and husbandman, the begetter and conserver of the earth’s bounty, but he is also midwife and motherer. He is a nurturer of life,”

The sustenance mission of agriculture sets it apart from all the other sectors of our economy. If you follow the food back to the farm – if you follow the nutrients, the minerals, the trace elements – you will end up in a field of wheat, corn, barley or potatoes. Therefore, despite technological and scientific progress, we should never forget the very basic fact that agricultural produce reflects the soil in which plants are grown or on which animals graze, and that we, in turn, are a reflection of what we eat.

Today there is growing recognition that it is equally important to relocalise our food production and distribution systems as it is to build up Irish agriculture’s capacity to expand into new markets internationally. Local innovation and local product development and availability are crucial to the vitality of our rural communities. Those of us who are not farmers should not conceive of ourselves as mere consumers of food products, but as
‘co-creators’ of innovative, co-operative ways of exchanging and enjoying the products of agriculture.

It is also essential that we instil in our children a taste for good food. This is inseparable from an understanding of the way food is produced, of the seasonal dimension of agricultural production, and of the transformations carried out along the whole supply chain. Such a focus is all the more important as our population is now predominantly urban, and as urban ways of life have become the norm, even for many households in rural areas.

Since the 1943 National Ploughing Championships in Ratheniska, Irish farming has changed profoundly. The crop areas under wheat have gone from 147,000 hectares in the late 1940s to 94,200 hectares in 2011, those under potatoes from 142,000 to 10,400 hectares, while the number of farms has decreased sharply over the same period. These figures reflect both the urbanisation of Irish society and the modernisation and greater productivity of our agriculture. But they also provide a powerful reminder of the challenges facing the Ireland’s agricultural sector. Enabling young farmers to access the land they need to make a living in agriculture is perhaps the greatest of all these challenges.

The current age structure of Ireland’s farming population has been identified as an issue which needs to be addressed. Only 6% of Irish farmers are under the age of thirty-five, while 51.4% of family farm holders are over fifty-five, and 28.3% over the retirement age of sixty-five. Too many farmers have no designated person to whom they plan to transfer the farm, either because they have no direct heirs, or – if they do – because these relatives have opted to pursue another career.

Yet currently many young farmers who want to take up farming and are fully qualified to do so cannot find land. Very little farmland, less than 0.5% per annum, is sold in Ireland in any given year. Hence the great value of the various forms of collaborative farming – whether registered farm partnerships, long-term leases or share farming – supported by organisations such as Macra na Feirme, who encourage older farmers to allow younger farmers to come in and share their enthusiasm and skills.

I gcomhthéacs thodhchaí na tíre seo, tá tábhacht criticiúil ag baint leis an talmhaíocht a choinneáil beoga agus múnla na feirme teaghlaigh a chaomhnú. Tá sé seo den riachtanas más mian linn nach ndéanfar faillí in aon chuid dár gcríocha náisiúnta. Tá sé seo den riachtanas más mian linn Éire de phobail áitiúla bhisiúla a bheith againn. Agus tá sé seo den riachtanas más mian linn caidreamh beo saibhir a choinneáil lenár timpeallacht nádúrtha.

[Maintaining a vibrant agriculture and preserving the family farm model is of critical importance to the future of this country. It is a vital necessity if we want to make sure that no portion of our national territory is left neglected. It is a vital necessity if we want an Ireland of thriving local communities. And it is a vital necessity if we want to sustain a living and rich relationship with our natural environment.]

There is great hope in the recent Central Applications Office’s statistics, which show that demands for third level places on an agriculture or food course have experienced the steepest rise of all courses in 2013. More and more young Irish people, including students from
non-farming backgrounds, are showing an interest in rural issues and farming life. There is also great inspiration to be found in the sense of solidarity and capacity to organise themselves which farmers so often demonstrate, such as during the recent fodder shortage.

To conclude, let me evoke the rich symbolism of renewal and fruitfulness encapsulated in ploughing. As we are facing into the next year with a renewed sense of optimism, I share the hope of everyone here that the sod we are turning over will deliver a bountiful harvest. I am delighted to declare the National Ploughing Championships open.