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has always been our mainstay. what is happening to it now?

by Colm O'Gorman

To 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!

Forget 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.

Instead, 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.

Worse outlook
If all this seems gloomy, according to farmers' organisations and agriculture economists, the picture gets even darker if you look at the wider context.

The 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?

Nobody 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 will help?

Secondly, 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.

Thirdly, 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.

Free trade difficulties
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.

None 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.

Age 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?

Firstly, 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.

Another 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.

Some 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.

Fundamental ties
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.

An 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.

So 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.




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