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 in the period 2004-2009 as reported in the Quarterly National Household Survey. Using this source, the report finds that the number employed in the sector declined in the period 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 of course been affected by the difficulties in the broader economy. This is clearly 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 are not yet clear — and this is perhaps reflected in the fluctuations in the figures mentioned above. Despite the downturn in our economy the Irish Government's commitment to the farming sector remains strong. My Department remains very active in assisting the entire sector including those farmers who have experienced reductions in income. 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.
With regard to those in the farming sector directly experiencing financial difficulties, there are a number of targeted schemes, which offer assistance. The Farm Assist is a means tested scheme aimed at low-income farm families, which is administered by the Department of Social and Family Affairs. At the end of May 2009, there were approximately 9,365 participants on the scheme, an increase of approximately 20% on the previous year. The Rural Social Scheme (RSS) was launched in May 2004 to provide an income supplement to low income farmers and fisher persons while at the same time harnessing their skills for the benefit of rural communities. The scheme requires participants to work 19.5 hours per week and is administered in a farmer/fisher friendly manner allowing participants to work flexible hours.
Furthermore, a key requirement is the need to continually develop the existing (formal and informal) skills of all farmers to enable them to participate in the development of both the agriculture sector as well as the wider rural economy. In this respect Teagasc continues to play a vital role in terms of providing training that meets the skill needs of the agri-food sector.