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Rural isolation greater than ever for farmers



Oisín McGovern

Rural isolation was prevalent long before Covid-19 struck our shores. In rural Ireland, farming is a particularly lonely pursuit even at the best of times.
The restrictions of the past eleven months have come down as heavily upon rural Ireland as any urban centre. In all that time, farmers’ favourite places to congregate, such as marts, Mass, pubs and football matches, have only been open to the public for months or weeks at a time.
According to Mayo IFA Chairman Jarlath Walsh, this has led to an acute increase in isolation among many in the farming community.
“There was a certain amount of rural isolation already, and [Covid] is going to exacerbate it,” Walsh tells The Mayo News. “The other worry is, can it be got back to normal if people get out of the habit of interacting?
“They aren’t allowed to go to the mart, which is a big place to meet up for a lot of famers. The marts are online now, which is a great thing that they were able to continue going. It kept the trade going and it kept the cattle moving, which is very important, but it removes the social part of it,” he adds.

Plan B
In light of the health concerns posed by the pandemic, the IFA unveiled its ‘Plan B’ document, which allows farmers to transfer the management of their farm in the event of them becoming temporarily incapacitated.
Local branch representatives have also been encouraged to keep an eye on more isolated members of the farming community.
The association has also conducted its meetings online for those who wish to attend. However, the reluctance or inability to adapt to technology because of poor broadband has also made accessing marts and meetings even more difficult for older farmers.
“The older people that wouldn’t have someone to help them on to the online mightn’t be able to deal with it,” says Walsh, who recently replaced Killala’s Martin Gilvarry as Mayo IFA chairman.
“They’d be the ones that are missing out. Online is filling in for meetings, marts and a lot of things. Anyone that can’t manage to access it or that haven’t the broadband to access it is at a big disadvantage. That’s the big lifeline gone,” he adds.
While the initial lockdown saw marts completely shut, buying and selling is allowed to continue online under current Level 5 restrictions. Under these regulations, only essential staff may attend mart days, with all purchasing and selling being carried out from behind a webcam.

‘Not for everybody’
While far removed from the days of famers packed tightly around a ring, Walsh says that online buying and selling has been a good alternative.
“We acknowledge that the online has saved the trade, from an animal welfare point of view and from a trade point of view,” he says.
“We’ve been pressing all along that a certain number of people would’ve been allowed in. It would be a big step forward for people that aren’t comfortable that would rather be there in-person,” he adds.
“The thing about the online is that it’s not for everybody but it suits a lot of people. The person hasn’t to spend all day at the mart and can sell his cattle online. The buyers have a chance to view the cattle in the morning and bid on them during the sale.
“A mixture of both would be the best as soon as it would be safe to do so,” he says.
With many farmers being elderly and living with underlying medical conditions, Walsh says that vaccines will eventually restore some normality to marts.
However, he also believes that a marriage of online and in-person bidding will become a permanent feature, once broadband infrastructure is in place. “I would think that the two would work side-by-side, that the auctioneer could take the online bids as well as the bids at the mart. It would facilitate the people that don’t want to be standing all day at the mart and it would facilitate the people that would be more comfortable to see the cattle.”
The Knock native also says that the pandemic has given people a better appreciation of the essential service provided by farmers in keeping the food supply going.
“At the beginning people were tearing the shelves for certain items because they got afraid that it was going to run out, but they got past that point when they saw that it was in good supply.
“I think it brought out a realisation among the public of the value of food and the value of people that are producing it.
“[Food] was taken for granted. If anything was to happen to disrupt the supply of food that’s when it hits home as to the value of the food and the value of the people who produce it.”