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Farmer Numbers.

Dáil Éireann Debate, Thursday - 11 March 2010

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Questions (9)

Jack Wall

Question:

9 Deputy Jack Wall asked the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food the action he is taking to promote the merits and advantages of a career in full-time farming; and if he will make a statement on the matter in view of this week’s report (details supplied) that farming’s share of the total workforce has fallen to 5.03%. [12035/10]

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Oral answers (10 contributions) (Question to Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food)

The main focus of the report in question is on the impact of the economic downturn on off-farm employment patterns among farmers. It also reports briefly on employment trends in the agriculture sector between 2004 and 2009 as reported in the quarterly national household survey. Using this source, the report found the number employed in the sector declined in 2004 to 2005, then remained stable until the third quarter of 2007, increased from this point to the end of 2008 and declined again in 2009.

The availability of off-farm employment has been affected by the difficulties in the broader economy. This is leading to difficulties for those farm families who were previously dependent on off-farm employment, particularly in the construction sector, in a similar way to non-farm families also affected by unemployment. The impact of this on participation in farming itself is not clear, as reflected in the fluctuations in the referred figures.

While the merits of any career are to a large extent dependent on personal choice, the advantages of choosing a career in full-time farming are best served by facilitating an environment that makes a career in the sector a viable option.

In this respect, my Department has been active and committed to promoting and supporting the agrifood sector. For example, in 2009 direct payments to farmers totalled over €1.9 billion. This figure does not take account of capital investment and other grant payments which amounted to an additional €420 million. I also successfully sought the deployment of EU market support measures to underpin the weak dairy market last year and stabilise milk prices to farmers.

More generally, my policy of supporting the development of a competitive and sustainable agrifood sector is the best means of ensuring an attractive livelihood for full-time farmers. This policy has been expressed through the outlined farm level supports. It is also expressed through the investment assistance provided for the continued modernisation and development of the food-processing sector and through research and education services which have expended considerably in recent years.

The decline in farm employment has been stark. The loss of employment in the construction industry, as acknowledged by the Minister, is also having a major bearing on off-farm employment.

A report by David Meredith of Teagasc's rural economy research centre in Kinsealy, County Dublin, highlighted that 70% of farmers recorded lower secondary education as their highest qualification, meaning they are more vulnerable to an economic downturn. If only 6% of farmers have a third level degree, will the Minister agree more has to be done to encourage young farmers to up-skill so if they need an off-farm income they will have good employment choices and still be able to part-time farm? Will he also agree it is important to provide proper resources to the agricultural colleges?

The strong and vibrant economy of several years ago took people off the land and away from farming. All Members will know of young men with good well-established farms who went to work in the construction and other sectors and were not inclined to remain in farming.

Substantial investment has been made in the Teagasc agricultural colleges in Clonakilty, Kildalton and Ballyhaise. Courses are now being delivered in the evenings and an e-learning facility has been developed to suit farmers who may have off-farm employment.

At meetings with the various heads of departments in universities and the agricultural colleges, it has been indicated to me there is much interest in admissions to agricultural courses. Last September, there was a significant increase in attendance levels at agricultural colleges, a welcome development.

The top ten recipients of the single farm payment are not farmers but plcs. This must be addressed as some people trying to maintain a sustainable living from a farm are suffering at the lower end.

The agriculture committee recently had a presentation from Teagasc. I assure the Leas-Cheann Comhairle I will come to a question.

The head of Teagasc, Professor Gerry Boyle, said if an agricultural college loses teachers through retirement, ill health or maternity leave, it cannot replace them because of the embargo on public sector recruitment. The colleges have already flagged that they may not be able to offer the full range of courses. Will the Minister address this matter?

I am aware of the resource issues as I meet Professor Gerry Boyle regularly. There are particular pressures on every State organisation in the current financial climate.

We have a good agricultural college infrastructure across the country. For example, a person starting in Ballyhaise can continue with a food degree at Dundalk Institute of Technology. While we want to resource Teagasc robustly, there are pressures on every State organisation.

I am an advocate of having a cut-off point for the single farm payment. However, when the payment was first established many EU member states were against having a cut-off point. I am not an advocate of the payment for those with large resources, tracts of land or herds of cattle.

As well as processing plants.

The rate of decline was from 115,000 in 2008 to 98,000 in 2009. Not all of the agricultural colleges will be able to take up that slack to re-educate these farmers. While I appreciate the Minister's response, he will have to widen the scope of the existing education policy.

We must remember it is the agriculture and food sector and not confine it to the primary producer. There is the Tourism College, Killybegs, the College of Catering at Cathal Brugha Street and other institutes that have strong departments in food and agricultural science. All of this is important. We should see education for our sector as agriculture and food, not just the person involved in primary production alone.

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