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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 9 Jul 1992

Vol. 422 No. 5

Ceisteanna—Questions. Oral Answers. - Statistics on Farmers.

Jim O'Keeffe


10 Mr. J. O'Keeffe asked the Minister for Agriculture and Food if he will give details of the fall in the number of farmers in Ireland since 1987; and whether he has any proposals to reverse this trend.

Gerry O'Sullivan


14 Mr. G. O'Sullivan asked the Minister for Agriculture and Food the number of people who have left agricultural employment since Ireland joined the EEC; if he will outline the steps if any which can be taken to halt this flight from the land; and if he will make a statement on the matter.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 10 and 14 together.

The Labour Force Survey carried out by the Central Statistics Office give annual data on employment by industrial sector in Ireland as well as data on the number of farmers in Ireland.

The total number of people at work in the agriculture, forestry and fisheries sector has declined from 267,000 to 155,000 from 1972 to 1991. The number of farmers in the country since 1987 has varied from 120,000 in 1987 to 122,000 in 1990.

It is important to note that the Labour Force Survey is based on a self-classification of activity. The above figures relate to persons classifying themselves as farmers. While the number declaring themselves to be farmers has actually risen from 120,000 to 122,000 since 1987, there is no doubt that in the longer term the number of full time farmers has declined significantly; and that there has been a significant shift to part time farming. This has been part of a worldwide trend in developed economies in recent decades and is related to improved farming technology and greater efficiency in agriculture generally.

The EC Farm Structures Survey of 1985 estimated that the holder/manager of one-third of holdings had a gainful activity other than farming. The more recently published household budget survey for 1987 also indicates that many farm households have income sources other than those from farming. This survey showed that on average farming represented some 54 per cent of gross farm household income. This trend towards greater diversification in the income sources of farm and rural households is likely to continue, reinforced by our new emphasis on rural development programmes.

However, I have also at all times in Community negotiations stressed the need for the maintenance of a strong commercial farming sector which will be able to adapt and compete in a new agricultural environment, a point which is very largely accepted by the EC Council and by the Commission. In this context the recent agreement on the Common Agricultural Policy reform measures has ended the uncertainty about future support arrangements that had existed in the agricultural sector for more than 15 months. Farmers will therefore be able to plan on the basis of known market supports and premium arrangements and this in turn should have some stabilising effect on the numbers working in the agricultural sector.

Is the Minister concerned about the very low level of new entrants to farming and would he agree that there are two factors which militate in this respect, namely, the continuing high level of stamp duty on land transfers and the inadequate level of, and difficult application procedure for, farm installation grants? Does he intend to raise this matter with the Department of Finance with a view to alleviating the position for new entrants to farming?

I accept that both those aspects cause problems and I will be making renewed effects to try to resolve them in the context of the Estimates which will be debated between now and October. During the Common Agricultural Policy reform negotiations, under the heading of accompany measures, I sought to have a credible early retirement scheme funded substantially by the EC. I hope that measure will help towards getting younger trained farmers into the business much earlier and that this proposed early retirement scheme will work in Ireland, where all previous early retirement schemes were absolute failures.

Does the Minister not accept that a drop of 112,000 people in agricultural employment since we joined the Community is some sort of an indictment? Although the Minister recognises that there is a slight increase in the number engaged in agriculture, he also admits there is a drop in the number of fulltime farmers. Has the Minister separated these two figures? Is the first one applicable to agricultural employees as opposed to farmers? Has this made a major impact on the numbers of unemployed, now at almost 300,000?

There is a substantial drop in the number working in agriculture from 267,000 to 155,000. That represents the number engaged in agriculture. The number of farmers has increased from 120,000 to 122,000. It is a problem of definition. The sad reality is that people are leaving farming areas.

How would the Minister explain an alleged increase in the number engaged in full time farming when there appears to be a dramatic decrease in the number engaged in agriculture?

It is a question of interpretation. In a number of areas there is an increase in the number of part time farmers, but the reality is that people are leaving rural areas. We are trying through the Leader programme and various other programmes to retain as many people as possible in the countryside.

Another major structural problem attached to the 122,000 farmers is their age profile, which is the worst in the Community. I am delighted the Minister has said that he intends to introduce additional measures such as a farm retirement scheme with which to tackle that problem. Can the Minister tell us how many of the 122,200 are of retirement age, 60 years and over? I would imagine there would be quite a few Would the Minister be able to predict the effect of such a farm retirement programme on farmers in the first year or two of its operation, or of transferring land from older farmers to younger farmers who would be a great deal more productive?

I would like to be helpful to Deputy Connor if I could. My interest in the accompanying measures — early retirement scheme — is to have a scheme implemented in Ireland which will work. I am conscious of the fact that previous schemes just did not work. I know, as I am sure do many other Members of this House, of many people who availed of early retirement schemes who came back to us asking whether they could cease their participation and apply for the noncontributory old age pension because the payments were less than those that would be forthcoming from social welfare. I do not want that to happen again. If it is a scheme that will give people an incentive to retire early, a satisfactory and guaranteed income, index-linked, then I predict there will be many participants. There is a substantial number of people — I do not have the precise figures — within the categories Deputy Connor spoke of who would be prepared to retire and put their farms into the hands of younger people.

The Minister must know the overall age profile.

In view of the alarming figures given to the House this afternoon of a reduction of 112,000 people engaged in agriculture over the past 20 years, would the Minister agree that the greater part of that reduction has taken place along the western seaboard from Mizen Head in his constituency to Malin Head in Donegal? What steps will he take to redress this trend in that it is evident from what the Minister has said this afternoon that the small farmer is a vanishing species that will have disappeared over the next decade if that trend is allowed to continue?

Questions, please, Deputy.

Would the Minister say whether it is his policy and that of his Department to turn the west and southwest into a wildlife habitat for safari tourists in the next decade?

That includes the Minsiter's own constituency.

In case there are any more added to the redundancy queues I hope there are at least three quotas left in Cork south-west.

To answer the Deputy's question, I do not know whether it applies particularly to the west. Generally in rural areas people are leaving, younger people, with the best will in the world, tend to go towards what they perceive to be a better income and profession.

Does the Minister foresee a continuation of the disturbing trend over the past ten to 20 years, when there has been such a drastic reduction in the numbers of people involved in agriculture? Does he foresee this trend continuing in the immediate future? In addition, how does he perceive farming as a livelihood in future years if this trend does continue? Surely the Minister must have some views on that, whether at Government or European level?

The Government, and the Department of Agriculture and Food in particular, in recent times have been endeavouring to counteract this trend. The House will have noted that my colleague, Deputy Hyland, has been given specific responsibility for rural development. In that regard there are a number of important programmes, including Leader programmes and others which hopefully — for the first time since the foundation of the State — will reverse the trend of people leaving rural areas. I am more hopeful than ever before that, with the redirection of investment and support for rural activities generally that will be the case. In fact in this very House yesterday President Robinson referred to the very good work of rural communities and of community associations generally. It is possible when the will is there to do so. Therefore, we should support them to the greatest possible extent.

My supplementary refers to the latter part of Question No. 14. The Minister has mentioned some steps to be taken by the Department in response to Deputy McGinley. Will he say whether the newly-announced scheme at local authority level — to be administered by the Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture and Food, Deputy Hyland — through the county development team is the type of scheme he has in mind which might address some of this flight from the land in that such a project could be prepared by a county development officer? The Minister will be aware of the scheme announced just this week, not the Leader programme, but the other dimension at county development team level; is that what he has in mind?

This is the type of scheme I had in mind when I spoke about the wide range of efforts and programmes we are at present pursuing. I might refer also to the overall outcome of the Common Agricultural Policy reform proposals. It would be my hope that they would stabilise the position also.

With regard to the 54 per cent of gross farm household income to which the Minister referred, would he agree that in areas which might be described as non-industrial, the income would be comprised mainly of social welfare? Has he any figures in that regard? Would he agree that the overall reorganisation within agriculture is likely to push people in the areas to which I referred out of agriculture with no place to go because there will be no jobs available, which is what worries me most? Would the Minister have the relevant figures on the social welfare input?

I do not have the figures sought by Deputy Cotter but will arrange to have them forwarded to him. It is my belief that reform of the Common Agricultural Policy will stabilise communities in rural areas and that the various programmes to which I have referred will go a long way towards reversing the trend which has been consistent here over the past 20 years.

The Minister has given a sleight-of-hand-type answer. The question asked for details of the decrease in the number of farmers since 1987. We all know there has been a dramatic decrease but the Minister is not prepared to acknowledge that. Would the Minister not accept that the policies of successive Fianna Fáil Governments — of closing down three-teacher schools, rural post offices and the like has added to the decrease in the numbers of farmers on the land? Furthermore would he agree that the imposition of a 12.5 per cent VAT rate on alternative enterprises, in which many farmers were encouraged to engage as and from 1 July 1992, will exacerbate the overall position?

That is an irrelevant detail to which I do not propose to reply.

It is very relevant.

The Deputy is a hostile little man.