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A way of life

TResearch Spring 2022

By exploring the benefits of developing a national social organisation for the older generation of the farming community, an age-friendly environment can be created in the farming sector.

It’s been reported globally that policies designed to stimulate generational renewal in agriculture pay little attention to the mental health and wellbeing of older farmers. Such policies often overlook their identity and social circles, which are intertwined with their occupation and farm.

Researchers at National University of Ireland, Galway (NUI Galway) and Teagasc are diving deeper into this issue, through a study looking at contrasting literature connected to transferring the family farm and social gerontology (the study of ageing and how it affects the individual and society).

Shane Conway, Postdoctoral Researcher at NUI Galway and project lead, says: “Our goal is to determine what steps, if any, could or should be taken to minimise the disconnect between policy and realities on the ground.

“We’re paying particular attention to practical ‘farmer-sensitive’ actions that can be taken at both policy and societal level. This is to reassure older farmers that their sense of purpose and legitimate social connectedness within the farming community will not be jeopardised when they hand over the farm business to the next generation.”

The project team’s study opens up a broad international conversation on the place of older farmers in society, and the part this plays in generational renewal and broader agriculture policy narratives.

“This insight is particularly timely as rural communities prepare to adapt and rebuild as part of their Covid-19 recovery plans,” says Shane, “Plus, social isolation measures have further highlighted the importance of ensuring social inclusion for society’s elderly population, including older farmers.”

Helping older farmers stay social

At present, agriculture policy makers and practitioners are focused predominantly on addressing the needs of younger farmers, but there is an urgent need to re-examine this focus and place greater or equal emphasis on maintaining the social and emotional wellbeing of those most affected by generational renewal – older farmers.

One key way in which the project team believe policy makers can respond positively to the ageing farming population is through the establishment of a national social organisation, similar to those in place for young farmers in rural Ireland.

There is increasing evidence within social gerontology research on the benefits and importance of such social organisations on the lives of older people, particularly in relation to combatting social isolation and loneliness in later years.

Anne Kinsella, Senior Research Economist at Teagasc, says: “Research reaffirms why there should be immediate support of such a venture in the farming sector, which could be funded annually by the Government and through membership.

“Designed to fit the older generation’s aspirations, needs and values, such organisations would help to alleviate concerns around the fear of the unknown upon retiring from farming, by providing older farmers with an outlet to remain embedded inside the agricultural sphere.

“A social organisation for older farmers, with a network of clubs in every county (or similar geographic entity), would also promote social inclusion in farming by allowing the older generation of the farming community to integrate within the social fabric of a local age peer group.”

Membership of such a group would provide opportunities to develop a pattern of farming activities suited to advancing age, through increased collaboration with farmers at a similar stage of their lives.

“This would contribute to an overall sense of happiness, belonging and self-worth, amidst the gradual diminishment of physical capacities on the farm,” says Anne. “And this comradeship would also be beneficial for farmers living alone, or for those who do not have a successor to take over the farm.”

Fostering health and wellbeing in later life

The establishment of a national social organisation for older farmers also has the potential to create an age-friendly environment in the farming sector. The concept of age-friendly environments has garnered international attention among researchers, policy makers and community organisations since the World Health Organization launched its Global Age-friendly Cities and Communities project in 2006.

“Despite the growth of the age-friendly environments movement, existing literature is mainly focused on a model of urban ageing that fails to reflect the broader diversity of rural areas and, more significantly, that of the farming community,” explains Shane.  “The successful implementation of a social organisation for older farmers in Ireland can help to address this significant underrepresentation by generating a culture of appreciation and respect for their way of life, both within policy circles and society.

“Consequently, it can prevent older farmers from becoming isolated and excluded from society almost by accident, rather than intention.”  

Livestock marts: hives of social interaction

The roll-out of a national social organisation for older farmers may seem challenging, but it could be relatively easy to instigate. The project team proposes drawing on already existing channels to establish the organisation, namely that of the long-established livestock mart sector.

In addition to their primary function of providing a consistent, stable and transparent method of buying and selling livestock through a guaranteed payment structure, marts also provide a vital social facility for the farming community, some of whom have no other social outlet.

Many older farmers rely on their weekly visit to the mart to meet friends, exchange ideas and catch up on local news in an informal setting. This has almost grown in significance in recent years as many of the natural meeting points within rural communities have been removed due to the closure of post offices, pubs and local shops.

Livestock marts could help to facilitate a national organisation as they already play a considerable role in providing a social hub for older farmers. With an existing positionality and reputation as a ‘buzz’ of activity within the heart of rural communities, marts have a ready-made platform and network to establish a social group membership of older farmers in their catchment area.


What is an age-friendly environment?

There’s no universally accepted definition of an age-friendly environment. However, the World Health Organization defines an age-friendly community as one in which “policies, services, settings and structures support and enable people to age actively”.


This study was funded by the NUI Galway College of Arts, Social Sciences and Celtic Studies Illuminate Programme.


Shane Conway
Postdoctoral Researcher
Rural Studies Centre, NUI Galway.

Maura Farrell
Senior Lecturer
Rural Studies Centre, NUI Galway.

John McDonagh
Senior Lecturer
Rural Studies Centre, NUI Galway.

Anne Kinsella
Senior Research Economist
Teagasc Agricultural Economics and Farms Surveys Department.

To find out more about this work, you can read the peer reviewed article by the authors at this link.