has always been our mainstay. what is happening to it
by Colm O'Gorman
get some idea of what is happening in Irish agriculture
today, it's necessary to forget everything you might have
heard about the Celtic Tiger economy!
the dizzying reports of the Irish economy's success. Forget
that employment here is growing by five per cent. a year.
Put the soaring tax revenues out of your mind. Pay no attention
to the economy's annual growth of almost ten per cent. Ignore
the rocketing prices of houses and apartments. Pretend you've
never heard the excited talk of seemingly endless growth
in the years ahead.
consider the following stark facts. Last year farm incomes
dropped by five per cent. Every year there are 7,000 fewer
farmers in the fields. According to government statistics
one in five Irish farmers lives in poverty, defined as an
annual income less than £7,000.
If all this seems gloomy, according to farmers' organisations
and agriculture economists, the picture gets even darker
if you look at the wider context.
relative decline in Irish agriculture over the last ten
years has occurred during a period of huge investment in
the sector. Under the provision of the European Union's
Structural Funds programme, over 1.25 billion pounds have
been poured into Irish farming, three-quarters of a billion
pounds coming from our European neighbours. This amounts
to the greatest investment in Irish farming in history.
The question is: if Irish agriculture declines during a
period of such massive investment, then what happens when
the investment stops?
is in any doubt that the European funds are running out.
There are three reasons for this: Firstly, the money was
meant to help put Irish farming in a position where it can
survive of its own accord. The argument is that if this
hasn't happened so far, why imagine that even more money
the attention of the European Union has moved east, to Poland,
the Czech Republic and further afield. As these agriculture-based
countries join the EU, they will have first claim on EU
funds. One Irish farmers' representative says: "The EU
cake is getting smaller and more people want a slice."
Remember that for the average Irish farmer, 70% of his income
comes from the EU and not from customers buying his produce.
there is pressure from outside the EU to abolish state supports
for farming. The World Trade Organisation, for example,
is vocal about the need to open up Europe to American, Australian
and other food producers. To take one example, there is
already too much beef production in Europe. The EU guarantees
beef producers a market by taking up surplus beef. At any
one time in Ireland there is up to 100,000 tonnes of beef
being stored simply because nobody can be found to buy it.
What happens to Irish farmers when genuine free trade arrives?
How can the already uneconomic system adapt to real competition
from the US and South America? Irish farmers had a taste
of the free trade environment in 1998. In that year the
Asian economies collapsed, causing a downturn in Russia,
a big importer of Irish beef. The damage done to the Russian
market wiped out many Irish beef producers. Increasingly,
Irish producers find themselves looking to markets in countries
such as Algeria, Libya, and the Gulf States. These are not
the most stable of markets so unpredictability will remain
the hallmark of Irish agriculture for years to come.
of this can make happy reading for those interested in Irish
farming. Is there a danger that the bad news is overstated?
Might it be that statistics serve to hide another brighter
picture? While farmers themselves bewail their current state
as catastrophic, it must be noted that in 1999 the price
of agricultural land rocketed once more and set record levels.
and small farms
To resolve this paradox it's useful to look not at agriculture
as a business but at farmers as people. What changes are
occurring among Irish farmers?
they are getting older. Almost 25% of Irish farmers are
over 65. Almost 50% are over 55. Governments have long recognised
this as a problem for agriculture. Older farmers are less
likely to innovate and adapt. They are inevitably less productive
and they stop a new generation from taking over the land.
There is now a very generous scheme whereby farmers may
retire at 55 but few avail themselves of it. Farming is
too connected to customs and habits for it to be amenable
to government schemes such as this.
feature recognised as a problem is the small size of Irish
farms. Ten years ago there were 165,000 farms, while today
the number is around 145,000. Most of the farms that have
disappeared have changed hands through inheritance. In this
way, the number of small farms - less than 50 acres - is
decreasing as the land is taken over by farmers with more
than 100 acres. But this natural process can never solve
the problem of large numbers of small uneconomic holdings.
Perhaps the most interesting feature of the new farming
lifestyle is the growth in the phenomenon of the part-time
farmer. A decade ago one quarter of Irish farmers had a
job off the farm. Today half do. More women in the workplace
means that a farming family in which both partners work
may derive as little as five or ten per cent. of their income
from the farm.
types of farming are more appropriate to the part-time farmer.
Dairy cows need a lot of time and are a full-time job even
if their numbers are few. However, Drystock and Tillage
are suitable for the part-timer. In some parts of the country
farmers are moving into Forestry: this requires low maintenance,
and frees time for other jobs.
Anyone looking at Irish agriculture has to conclude that
farmers are attached to the land and to the lifestyle involved
with farming. Even when the rewards are no longer great
from a financial point of view, farmers are clinging on.
indication of this is the fact that very little agricultural
land ever goes on sale. Despite the fact that three quarters
of Ireland's land mass is agricultural it is virtually impossible
for someone from a non-farming background to get involved
in farming. Approximately 0.1% of Irish land went on sale
in 1999 - a time when prices have never been so high.
this is the final paradox of agriculture in the Celtic Tiger
economy. From the outside it's impossible to see why anyone
would want to get involved in such an uncertain business
as farming. From the inside however, it is more than a job,
it is a way of life that nobody wants to leave.
TO SAMPLE ARTICLES MENU
TO TOP OF PAGE