Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Wednesday, 1 December 2021

Joint Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine

Common Agricultural Policy and Young Farmers: Engagement with Macra na Feirme

Mr. John Keane:

I thank the committee for opportunity to speak with it this evening. Over the past number of months the committee has facilitated discussions with us on a number of occasions, and I would like to acknowledge that at the start. The committee and Chair's continued engagement with young farmers is greatly appreciated. This evening, our ask has a particular focus on the area of young farmers in relation to the Common Agricultural Policy.

Over the past number of months and, indeed, even years, the next tranche of the Common Agricultural Policy has been up for debate and negotiation both at the EU and governmental levels. We are now getting to the crunch period before it has to be submitted to the Commission before the end of December. The documents that have been circulated on the CAP strategic plan over the past number of months have been positive in light of being visible for farm organisations as well young farmers across the country. However, we view it in the context of the ever-changing environment in which farmers and young farmers see themselves in, particularly in the context of the European Commission in 2017 and 2018. Elevating generational renewal is one of the main key deliverables and objectives under this Common Agricultural Policy. It is key to remember that during the course of those negotiations at European level and, more recently, at national level, the importance that has been placed on ensuring that there is a sustainable and viable sector for future generations to partake in within the sector. Young farmers play a key role in addressing the challenges that we as an industry face, but also see a huge amount of opportunity in terms of bringing the sector forward over the next number of years and into the decades beyond.

In Ireland, our agricultural land base is primarily based in terms of our livestock sectors, supported by and spread across tillage and other enterprises also. The breakdown of young farmers across those enterprises over the past decades has decreased significantly. Even in the five years from 2011 to 2016 there has been a 15% decrease in the number of active young farmers under the age of 35. It is to the backdrop of those stark figures and in the context of general society, where the workforce within other economic and entrepreneurial sectors across the economy shows that the average workforce under the age of 35 represents almost 30%. In that context, the support for young farmers in the context of CAP and even in the national envelope needs to be strengthened and increased.

If we look at the traditional barriers that have existed for young farmers over the course of the past number of decades, whether that be access to credit or land, investment support or start-up aid, we see a lack of support and commitment within the current guise of the CAP strategic plan for young farmers to address those barriers that we face on an ongoing basis. If we also look at our counterparts across other EU member states, covered very eloquently by Diana Lenzi, the current president of Conseil Européen des Jeunes Agriculteurs, CEJA, the European Council of Young Farmers, at our annual conference last Friday, those barriers exist across other EU member states also. However, there have been discussions and parameters are being put in place to support and address those barriers in other EU member states.

We look a little closer to home in terms of the context of access to land and we look at our own land mobility service being called out within Commission's proposals and documents and the lack of support in terms of the Common Agricultural Policy and the CAP strategic plan. We acknowledge the commitment from the Minister in the past week for an increase of funding from the national envelope for next year but it is important that service is committed and is provided into longer term.

In regard to access to credit from a young farmer's perspective and under current state aid rules, we realise we are working within the parameters of those state aid rules and recognise that one of the only possible alternatives to address that is support for young farmers with financial instruments. We have seen it called out within the Common Agricultural Policy within the Commission's proposals. We have also seen some of our counterparts within other EU member states, notified to us by CEJA, have engaged in endorsing and developing financial instruments specifically to support young farmers. We see that within our own CAP strategic plan that critical access to finance and that the barrier for young farmers over past decades has not been addressed.

We believe that is a significant limiting factor in ensuring the sustainability of the number of young farmers under the age of 35 as we move forward. From a delivery point of view in the course of this CAP period, we believe the litmus test of this CAP period will be the number of active young farmers under the age of 35 farming actively by 2027. Agriculture, as I previously touched on, is a complete outlier in terms of what the people and the demographic of the sector look like. Over the past ten years the number of farmers over the age of 55 and, indeed, 65 has increased, while the number of active and progressive farmers under the age of 35 has decreased.

Addressing the issues in terms of succession pathways to enter the industry has been something that we in Macra na Feirme have called for over many years as well as addressing the need in order to provide an opportunity for older generations to have financial security as they exit farming while also ensuring that young farmers have supports to enter the sector. In regard to what we can do to develop a succession scheme that provides for that, issues have been identified with previous early retirement schemes. Our proposals have centred around a succession scheme as opposed to an early retirement scheme. We recognise that within media outlets over the past number of weeks there has been a recognition or a floating of a scheme related to decarbonising, and a succession scheme relating to that. We believe any scheme must offer an opportunity for young farmers to enter the sector while also supporting those who are exiting the sector.

The key issue for our members that has spanned almost a decade at this stage has been the forgotten farmers. This is a cohort of farmers who set up agricultural holdings before 2008, many of whom are still under the age of 40 but have low value entitlements and are also deemed ineligible for young farmers access to the national reserve. We recognise the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy McConalogue, has committed to resolving the matter of forgotten farmers in the context of the new CAP arrangements and to ensure those farmers are not forgotten any longer. We see within the current proposals of the CAP strategic plan that that cohort of farmers has not been facilitated nor provided for in an amount of funding to address that issue. Approximately 3,500 farmers are in that category. They feel they have been forgotten and left out from valued supports, such as installation aid, young farmer top-ups and supporting schemes throughout the CAP.

The other key issue from a young farmer's perspective is start-up aid. We recognise there is a contribution from the national envelope and tax relief to encourage young farmers to enter enterprises. However, we recognise and have seen from our counterparts across the EU that start-up aid and installation aid have formed part of previous CAP plans in other EU member states and have been used effectively to ensure that initial boost of capital for young farmers to establish their enterprises while also meeting the challenges of compliance which we understand will increase on farms over the next couple of years. The cost of establishing and setting up a farm enterprise is a huge initial investment for a young farmer. For someone coming into the industry who lacks collateral or security, that initial injection of capital investment can prove a barrier.

Moreover and more wholly in terms of the eco-schemes that have been proposed in the context of CAP, we believe there is a gap and a need and an opportunity for additional eco-schemes and measures to be included. The CAP proposals from a Commission point of view include a progressive and increased day's grazing at grass, while also looking at the actions which enhance animal welfare and address antimicrobial resistance, such as faecal dung sampling and milk recording. It is in that context that we should continue to improve and drive our performance. When we compare ourselves on the latter to the average EU performance, we are less than half in terms of our antibiotic use within this country and that is something we should be proud of but also something we should endeavour to improve. In the context of the eco-schemes and when we look at our countryside, we are unique in the hedgerow cover we have throughout the country. We have looked for a hedgerow management policy and measure. That can benefit both the farmer and biodiversity throughout the country. We recognise this is something that all farmers have a role to play in.

I reiterate my comments at the start. I appreciate the engagement of the Chair and the committee. My fellow Macra na Feirme members, Mr. Dillon, Ms Richardson, Mr. Fitzgerald, and I look forward to the questions.


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