Most people living in rural communities are farmers - right?

"Most people living in rural communities in Northern Ireland are farmers – right?"

RCN Policy officer Aidan Campbell explores the data on the numbers of people employed directly in agriculture in rural Northern Ireland and what that might mean for future policy.

Most people living in rural communities in Northern Ireland are farmers – right?  It’s a question I was asked recently at a meeting with someone who wasn’t that au fait with rural NI.  Farming and farmers are still very important in rural areas.  They grow the majority of food that consumers eat and shape the rural environment but, as in all developed countries, the proportion of people in rural areas who are directly involved in agriculture has been reducing for decades. 

One way of thinking about this is to look at the data.  NI Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) produces population estimates broken down to Small Area level.  Small Areas are the smallest geography that population statistics are broken down into and there are 4,537 of them in Northern Ireland.  Small Areas are classified by NISRA as urban if 90% or more of the population are living within the boundaries of an urban settlement (population>5,000 people).  They’re classified as rural if 10% or less of the population are living within the boundaries of an urban settlement, and anything in between is classified as 'mixed urban/rural'.

The 2016 Mid-year Population Estimates for Small Areas can be combined with the Small Area level lookup table to create approximated population totals for Urban, Rural and Mixed areas for mid-2016.  This gives approximated population totals as follows:

Urban population     1,112,338
Rural population      666,497
Mixed urban/rural   83,315
Total population NI  1,862,150

Using this method approximately 36% of the population of Northern Ireland lives in rural areas.

The Agricultural Census in Northern Ireland 2017 identifies 48 704 people as the total agricultural labour force (this includes farmers, partners and directors, spouses and other workers employed directly in farming).  48 704 people employed directly in farming represents just over 7% of the approximate rural population of 666 497.  So over 93% of the rural population have no direct connection to agriculture. 

As I said at the beginning of this post agriculture is still important in rural communities.  It’s also important for the NI economy as agriculture supplies produce directly into the agri-food industry which is a large employment sector in NI terms (c. 80 000 people employed) and supports a range of related jobs and businesses.  However, these figures show that it’s important for policy makers to consider how they can develop the wider rural economy. 

The people who are no longer directly employed in agriculture are working in construction, manufacturing, agri-food, the public sector or service sector and are increasingly commuting to regional towns and cities to work.  That’s not even to mention the low paid or unpaid care work undertaken overwhelmingly by women in rural communities which will become more important in years to come as rural populations age. 

Economic and regional development strategies must meet the diverse needs of rural citizens and prioritise connectivity.  It’s crucial to ensure that any rural development policy post-Brexit is not merely an adjunct to a price support policy for farming.  Rural populations are increasingly diverse and the share of people who receive part of their income from agriculture is likely to continue to decrease as small farms are consolidated.

For more details you can contact Aidan on 028 8676 6670 or email You can also visit our website

9th May 2018