Poots flies the flag forlocal agriculture

Approximately 300,000 people attended this week’s combined Irish National and World Ploughing Championships. The event was held across a sprawling 400-acre site, close to the village of Ratheniska in Co Laois, writes Richard Halleron.

Adding to the attraction of this year’s proceedings was the excellent weather – certainly over the first two days. Significantly, the importance of farming and food to the economy of Northern Ireland was extensively profiled at Ratheniska this year.

Just short of 100 local exhibitors took part in the event while the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) pavilion was centrally located on the site, in close proximity to Ireland’s National Ploughing Association headquarters’ complex.

Moreover, large numbers of Ulster accents could be heard across the site over the three days of the event. All of this reflects the fact that farming and food are now all-island industries in the truest sense of the term.

Ploughing crowd shot

Northern Ireland’s farm minister Edwin Poots was very visible at this year’s championships. Over a two day period, he visited many of the companies and organisations taking part from Northern Ireland.

On the first day of the event he commented: “This is the first time I have attended the Championships and one could not fail to be impressed by the vast scale of this event. It is fundamentally a ploughing competition, which is truly and rightly recognised on the international map as a major competition, attracting world class ploughmen. I wish all the competitors, especially those from Northern Ireland, best wishes.

“The event is of course very beneficial for Northern Ireland companies and visitors.

“From walking around and meeting people, particularly Northern Ireland exhibitors and competitors, it is clear to see and hear the benefits of trading and showcasing the best of NI businesses, agri products and our excellent food produce, to a wide and varied audience.

Ploughing competitions underway at Ratheniska

“The event provides unique opportunities to promote Northern Ireland’s agri-food and rural sectors to a large audience from across Ireland and further afield. There will also be a display of local food produce from Northern Ireland within the DAERA exhibition stand.”

The Minister continued: “We intend to continue to build Northern Ireland’s reputation for excellent produce. In October 2021, I helped launch FoodNI’s ‘Our Food, Power of Good’ campaign, to promote the good of our local industry, our quality produce and our sustainability in terms of production and reputation of the food that is produced on local farms in NI. My Department will also continue to explore new market opportunities in partnership with others.

“I am also very pleased that CAFRE was back at the Ploughing Championships. My Department has a strong commitment to developing the knowledge and skills of the local agri-food industry – both for those that are entering the industry and those well established and who wish to develop further.  I firmly believe that educational attainment is linked to the economic success of our industry.”

One of the most important issues coming to the fore at Ratheniska this week was the scope to increase the footprint of arable farming across the island of Ireland over the coming years.

Attending this week's World Ploughing Championships in Co Laois, representing England: Stewart Bunting (left) and Ian Alderslade

This aspiration was specifically encapsulated by members of the Irish Grain Growers (IGG) group.

Pat Cleary, a committee member of the organisation confirmed that Ireland’s farmers have had a good year.

He said that cereal prices look to be set firm after a very good harvest,” adding:“But growers have been working with the spectre of volatility haunting them for the entire 2022 growing season.

“And this threat looks likely to take on an even greater significance in 2023. No one knows how Vladimir Putin will react over the coming months.

Farm MInister Edwin Poots at the 2022 Irish National Ploughing Championships

“The fertiliser market is totally unpredictable at the present time. Buyers are happy to forward quote for oilseed rape at the present time, but not for cereals.”

The IGG representative believes there is significant scope to expand the footprint of the arable sector.

Hand-in-hand with this will come a greater level of co-operation between arable and livestock farmers.

Pat Cleary further explained:“But the grain sector needs additional government support. And this needs to happen now.”

An underlying trend of the commentary given by Cleary was the need for livestock farmers to realise the quality of home grown grain, relative to imported cereals.

He explained:“All Irish-grown grain is produced to a farm quality assured standard. The same cannot be said for imports.”

Cleary was a member of a discussion panel, which had been brought together to discuss the ways in which greater levels of cooperation can be effected between the tillage and livestock sectors.

Looking to the future, he said that tillage farmers must continue to add value to the grains they produce, adding: “Oilseed rape and beans should be regarded in this context. Their intense flowering nature ticks many boxes from a biodiversity point of view. They are also tremendous break crops within every rotation.”

One proposed development debated by the members of by the IGG discussion panel was the need for Ireland to have its own oilseed rape crushing facility.

This year will see the rape acreage in the Republic of Ireland exceeding 20,000ha. This represents a doubling of the sector’s size over the past five years.

The residue oilseed rape cake has a very high protein content and would be in strong demand within the livestock sector.

Representatives from 25 countries took part in this week’s World Ploughing Championships at Ratheniska. This event was originally planned for Ukraine. But recent events in that country forced a re-think on this matter with Ireland stepping up at the last moment to provide an alternative venue.

Many of the competitors taking part in this week’s World Ploughing Championship classes manage very large tillage farms.

They will openly admit that, when it comes to their commercial business operations, techniques such as min-till and zero-till now take precedence.

But ploughing is in their blood.

“It’s a tradition,” confirmed Peter Alderslade.

“The Sunderland man was competing for England this week in the world reversible competition.

“At home we grow a mix of winter wheat, barley, oilseed rape, rye and spring beans.

“We use min and zero still options when it comes to getting crops established.

“But that does not take away from the fact that ploughing remains a fundamental skill within arable farming.”

Stewart Bunting hails from Norfolk in the east of England. He was in Ireland this week in his capacity as both judge and coach with the English team.

He commented:“In the UK we have moved away from the family farm model. It’s a case of young people spending 12 and 15-hour days in a tractor. This gives them very little time to practise their competition ploughing skills.

“We have to find ways of encouraging more young people, both men and women, to take up the sport of ploughing.”

Both men have been in Ireland for the past week, preparing for the World Ploughing Championships.

“The site is in excellent condition and should provide a fair test for all the competitors,” he stressed.

“Heavy rain is forecast for the final day of competition. But if it gets an opportunity to soak through, it shouldn’t create that big of an issue for those competing.”

Ireland’s National Ploughing Association President, James Sutton was confident of the event being a major success.

“Ireland was more than happy to host the 2022 World Championships, given what has happened in Ukraine.

“Ratheniska is the perfect location for the event. The land is perfectly suited to competition ploughing of the highest standard.

“Adding to the attraction is the fact that the plots are in perfect condition. They will provide the perfect test for everyone involved.

“Ploughing is at the very heart of Irish agriculture. This week’s events at Ratheniska represent a perfect shop window for everyone involved with the sport.”

The number of young people taking part in this week’s ploughing events was tremendously encouraging. Large numbers of people also gathered to watch the horse ploughing events at Ratheniska. Again, this was great to see.

And for those who love the sport, the good news is that another season of competition beckons.

Ploughing goes to the very heart of all that is good about Northern Ireland agriculture. Turning the sod has all the symbolism associated with making a fresh start and preparing for a better, brighter future.

The skills of local ploughmen are renowned throughout the world and the myriad events planned for the coming months will give local enthusiasts another opportunity to confirm just how good they are.

The recent spell of dry weather should serve to make ploughing conditions at the site just right. And, with the harvest now just complete in all areas there should be no shortage of excellent sites for competitors to avail of.

In truth, every ploughing event – local and national- is one of the year’s farming highlights. Each one combines a mix of intense competition, good natured banter and a unique atmosphere that allows competitors and spectators alike to truly immerse themselves in a rural tradition that can be traced back for thousands of years.

But when all is said and done competition ploughing is a sport. And inherent in this is a commitment on the part of those taking part to practice and hone their skills over many years.

What’s more, Northern Ireland has a track record, where ploughing is concerned, which is the envy of most other countries. The activity offers a unique combination of competition and camaraderie that is hard to find from any other pastime or hobby.

Internationally, the province has a track record to be proud of. And, as a result, young people wishing to take up the sport will have every opportunity to prove themselves, both at home and internationally.

I have often said that if ploughing was recognised as an Olympic sport, competitors from this part of the world would come home with bags full of medals – time after time.

But a ploughing match is as much a social gathering as it is a cauldron of sporting and trade activity.

It provides people with an opportunity to meet and greet friends that they might only meet once a year at this very event. And horse ploughing should never be over looked. It provides a flashback of the ways things used to be in the good old: bad old days.

And for those not interested in ploughing per se, an opportunity to see the horse turned out in full regalia is an opportunity that should never be missed.

So let’s hope for some good weather and ground conditions over the coming weeks that will give all ploughing competitors the opportunity to display their skills in the most effective way possible. May the best man – and woman win every time!