A Working Group of the Role of the Church Committee
Since Ireland joined the EEC, now the EU, agriculture has always been of central importance to any legislation that has emanated from Brussels due to the huge importance of Irish agricultural production, much of which has to be exported.
Members of the Church of Ireland, both North and South, have always had a very deep involvement and have made a significant contribution to the development of our farming patterns as they have evolved over time.
Sadly, there is now a huge crisis down on the farm and many in the farming community are very concerned for the future survival of their farms and homesteads. The causes of these problems are many but the author of this contribution will only attempt to raise the issues of which he is conversant, as applies to the Republic of Ireland. Undoubtedly the picture for Northern Ireland is also very bleak, having considered various papers and reports coming from Northern Ireland.
It is vital that the Santer proposals in AGENDA 2000 as recently published in Brussels should give a clear mandate that a significant part of our rural population be given a reasonable opportunity to farm the land that they love and get a reasonable reward for doing so. I believe that the contribution of the farmers of Ireland to the socio-economic fabric of this country should not be underestimated. A significant indicator of the decline in interest of young people in farming is that the agricultural colleges have had a rapid fall off in applications for places. Once such College, until recently fully occupied, now has only 80 students with 50 vacant places in the current year.
It is very important for rural Ireland and for those who live there, that whatever reforms are agreed in AGENDA 2000 give a support system that is compatible to the unique patterns of Irish farming and that as many as possible will continue to live and farm the land which make up the parishes of rural Ireland.
SOME RELEVANT ISSUE IN THE CURRENT DEBATE
- Agriculture has always been an industry where our Church members have been substantially involved over the many centuries. It is the heartland of the Church of Ireland in the Republic of Ireland.
- The creation of the E.E.C. And the E.U. led to tremendous changes in farming through the C.A.P. (Common Agricultural Policy) rather than stabilising farmer number the major declines through the E.U. continued ( 2. 5 million farmers left the land between 1991-5).
- The spiralling costs of C.A.P. brought about the C.A.P. reform measures of 1992. These changes endeavoured to control volumes of production whilst keeping farm incomes stable by de-coupling farm prices from inducement aids.
- Ireland, always peripheral to Europe, is a major producer of milk and beef. The production of beef amounted to £1,147 million in 1996 . We produce more beef per head of population than any other European nation and must export 89% of our production. This has led, in times of European surplus, to Irish production having to find outlets outside the E.U. in places such as Russia and Egypt.
- Subsequent to the reforms of 1992, further spiralled by the advent of B.S.E. in the U.K. in 1996 we have seen rapidly declining level of income in the beef (dry-stock) sector. Figures produced by Teagasc (The Farm Advisory Development Board) show dry-stock farm incomes at £5,500 p.a. with an industrial average wage of £14,500 and an average dairy farming income of £18,750 for 1996.
- These poor returns for dry-stock farming at a time when the Celtic tiger economy is in full stride has led to great pessimism in this sector of the industry. Due to quota restrictions farmers outside the milk, sugar beet and cereal sectors are unable to join in these more profitable forms of production. Whilst the emphasis in this paper is on cattle production which takes up a major part of our land area there are also serious issues in the cereal sector to be addressed.
- The second half of the 20th century has seen the demise of the small farm and what we are now seeing in the last decade of this century is the severe pressure being put on numbers of what were commercial beef farms and which are now unable to provide a reasonable living for their owners. These farms are an integral part of an industry where the units of production of young store cattle are very small (43,000 farms have 10 or less suckler cows ) and the farms which fattened these young cattle worked on a larger scale. The social significance of the reduction of income of the 'finishing farms' is very real indeed. There is a great reluctance for farmers to encourage their sons and daughters to join an industry which is being strangled to death.
- T.J. Maher (former President of the Irish Farmers' Association and former M.E.P.) along with Fr Harry Bohen (Rural Resettlement Group, Co. Clare) have been alone in calling for a major rethink on where we are going, when they see a very strong dairy industry with a rapidly reducing producer base dominating the countryside. Other have been reluctant to speak out for fear of offending vested interests.
- The panacea of part time off-farm employment has often been suggested but what of the families of part-timers? Who would ask their family to join a part-time industry? What educated and trained young person is going to enter such a situation? AGENDA 2000 fails to address this issue.
- Large amounts of money have been allocated by Brussels to the beef industry but much of this has failed to get to where it was intended. The system of distribution of beef supports has been seriously flawed and we have the emergence of a great imbalance in the distribution of these supports. This, among other factors, has led to the control of the beef processing industry passing into the hands of a very small number of individuals who now have a near monopoly in pricing policies. Furthermore take-overs of major Irish supermarkets by British chains show every sign of having a negative impact on the use of Irish suppliers.
- Agriculture in Ireland is unique, though the acreage size of Irish farms is greater than that of farms in France and Germany.
- It is a fact that Ireland's dry stock (beef) farms outnumber all other categories of Irish farms combined. And while 89% of beef is exported this is usually to top up indigenous supplies of other countries such as the U.K., France, and Germany and this makes Irish exports vulnerable. AGENDA 2000 proposes a drastic 30% reduction in price. Neither quality nor volume is addressed. There would appear to be no recognition in AGENDA 2000 for those farmers who do not produce their own bull calves and therefore do not get direct support. At the same time it has to be said that the Irish beef sector is in need of restructuring if it is to survive. The significance for Ireland of the demise of the beef industry and those who work in it would be immense.
NB AGENDA 2000 is President of the E. U. Commission Jacques Santer's blueprint for the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (C.A.P.) until 2006.
This Working Paper and its contents are produced by the Working Group On Europe as a contribution to discussion of issues in Ireland. As such they have only the authority of that Group and are not intended to reflect the policy of the Role of the Church Committee or of any other Church of Ireland Body.