Ireland's presidential candidates, including the latest entry, Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness, were among the crowds at the biggest rural event of the year in Ireland, the National Ploughing Championships.

Almost 200,000 sightseers were due to attend the event to mark the 80th anniversary of the National Ploughing Association which was opened on Tuesday by President Mary McAleese in Athy, Co. Kildare.

The festival is taking place at a good time for farmers, one of the few sectors seeing a recovery in their incomes this year. More young people are also opting for careers in agriculture.

Figures released from Bord Bia (the national food board) at the opening of the festival suggested that food and drink exports this year are expected to reach a new all-time high of €8.9 billion, an increase of more than 12% on 2010.

The ploughing championships are literally the biggest rural attraction in Ireland.
Organizers confirmed that all hotel and guesthouse accommodation, within a 30-mile radius of the site, was booked for the three-day event on a 700-acre site.

Local resident Tommy Moore said, “The ploughing crowd are the salt of the earth.”

While the core of the championships was the ploughing competitions, most attention was focused on more than 1,100 commercial stands where millions of euros worth of goods was on display.

More than 300 ploughmen and women took part in the ploughing competitions, with particular focus on the World Championship Ploughing Challenge.

Because of the presidential election the site was a political cockpit. One of the candidates, Mary Davis, had her own stand at the event and she brought a strong team of workers to canvass the huge crowds.

Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney claimed at the festival opening that Ireland’s best hope for recovery depended on the agriculture sector’s performance in increasing exports.

He stressed that the trend in farming was very positive as sales abroad were set to increase by 25 per cent between this year and next.

Irish Farmers’ Association President John Bryan said it was gratifying to see young people being attracted back into the agriculture sector.

“There is a good buzz in farming and a confidence about it that has not been there in recent times,” he said.

But he also warned that despite the upturn most farmers still earned less than €20,000 a year.

Big crowds turn out for the National Ploughing Championships in KildareNiall Carson/PA Wire/Press Association Images