Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Tuesday, 25 May 2021

Joint Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine

Teagasc Education Courses and the Signpost Programme: Discussion

Photo of Jackie CahillJackie Cahill (Tipperary, Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the representatives from Teagasc, Dr. Stan Lalor, director of knowledge transfer, and Mr. Tony Pettit, head of education, both of whom join us remotely. You are both very welcome to the meeting.

We received your opening statements and they have been circulated to the members. We are limited in time due to Covid-19 restrictions so the committee has agreed that the opening statements will be taken as read in order that we can use the full session for questions and answers, as happened in the first part of the meeting. All opening statements are published on the Oireachtas website and publicly available.

Before we begin, I must read an important notice on parliamentary privilege. Witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of the evidence they give to the committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. Witnesses are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given. They are asked to respect parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. Participants joining the committee meeting from a location outside of parliamentary precincts are asked to note that the constitutional protections afforded to those participating within the parliamentary precincts do not extend to them. No clear guidance can be given on whether, or the extent to which, participation is covered by absolute privilege of a statutory nature.

Before inviting questions from the members, the director of Teagasc, Professor Gerry Boyle, appeared before the committee previously and he requested that Teagasc get a chance to put forward its policy on agricultural education, which is critical to the industry.

I call Senator Boyhan.

Photo of Victor BoyhanVictor Boyhan (Independent)
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I welcome the witnesses. I know that Mr. Pettit and his team head the educational sector in Teagasc. I studied horticulture under ACOT, the predecessor of Teagasc. That was a good while ago. I acknowledge the importance of Teagasc and its work on training. I will make a few comments and ask a few questions. On many occasions, we have discussed in this committee the question of what a farmer is. I am more interested in what is a trained farmer. Teagasc covers that in its prospectus. It talks about the national policy, which is the Government's priority, of training farmers for various farm incentives. One thing that occurred to me during the Covid-19 pandemic when many young people from transition year were out of school is that we never really got back to full education. There is an agricultural science module in the leaving certificate, yet we know that young people are hungry to learn, particularly if they live on farms. I believe there is a disconnect between the Department of Education and Teagasc, and I would like Mr. Pettit to comment on it. Many young people have said they would love to see a module of the GreenStart as part of transition year. They are young, keen and ambitious. They are working and living on the land, and they are potentially the successors to many farms and land. That is very important, because that is the way to go. We have students going on to do agriculture in the leaving certificate, but they know very little in terms of applied agriculture after that. There is a disconnect there.

I have looked at Teagasc's prospectus. As agriculture, horticulture and forestry have got more complex, the entry requirements for many Teagasc courses have gone up. It is very important we do not dissociate the practicalities of agriculture and require people to have a number of points from the leaving certificate examination to access courses. There is an important entry there, but there is a more important entry at another level. There are many young people who left school at 15 years of age and who are running massive farms in this country. They learned this trade from being a young lad on the farm. That is important.

Mr. Pettit might touch on how Teagasc is preparing its students and graduates for the challenges and expectations of the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, because there will be educational standards feeding into that, which is important.

I will wrap up with a few points. The synergy I am talking about is the practicalities of a 50:50 in terms of practical applied agriculture, horticulture or forestry versus the academic, because that is important. How is Teagasc interacting with the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science in terms of farming apprenticeship, learning the trade with one's hands from the bottom up? What interested me more, and I could not get much information on this when I looked into Teagasc's work and reports, is how Teagasc is preparing people for agribusiness planning, financial management, governance and compliance. That is an important issue. How is it dealing with artisan foods? We know one will not make a full living from the farm so there is added diversification and all that goes with that. How about the issues of smart farming, position farming, central technology, automation and robotics? That is an entirely new area of learning for young farmers.

In terms of looking back on Teagasc's students and graduates, what analysis does it do of the students who come through Teagasc courses, a look-back graduate survey? What does that show? Are people staying in agriculture? Are they moving up the chain in terms of management in agriculture, forestry and horticulture? Where are they after going through some of Teagasc's courses?

Teagasc is a very positive organisation, but cautious. The one question I have today is about how we can prepare our new graduates and new students in respect of compliance, the environmental objectives and so forth, the issues with the new CAP and how we are facing them, and how we are dealing with technology in agriculture. The latter is very important. It is cutting edge stuff. In addition, we must not forget that there are young people who may never achieve a State examination, but who have a hunger and yearning for learning and practical knowledge. It is very important that we do not close the door in some way and tell them they do not qualify for entry into courses because they do not have X number of points. There are different levels.

Finally, and I will shut up after this point, I believe in apprenticeships and in learning the trade from the bottom up. I want to hear about how Teagasc is planning to conduct hands-on apprenticeship in farming.

I thank the witnesses again. As a student of horticulture, having known it, having mentored people in this area and still doing it, I believe it is very important that we draw on the uniqueness of individuals and enhance them to be our next generation of farmers.

Photo of Jackie CahillJackie Cahill (Tipperary, Fianna Fail)
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Those were quite extensive questions for the witnesses.

Mr. Tony Pettit:

I will begin and then hand over to my colleague, Dr. Stan Lalor. In terms of school links, that is very important. There is always room for improvement with regard to working with the schools. All our colleges have quite an involvement with schools through inviting people to the colleges each year. With Agri Aware we take in approximately 3,000 students annually in March for the walk and talk exercise. We also have open days on careers for transition year, fifth year and sixth year students. There is quite an amount of work on that. On the Teagasc public website we have resources that are available for second level schools. Some of my colleagues in the advisory regions are also looking at pilot projects to work with and visit schools to explain about Teagasc and to explain farming and food and where farming fits in the food chain. There is ongoing work on that, but it is a work in progress. I fully accept that we need to work more because these people are important for the future.

With regard to entry requirements, we have both higher education courses and further education courses. There is no educational requirement, as such, for our full-time further education courses in which one attends one of our agricultural colleges. It is an age-based requirement. One has to be 17 years of age on the January after one enters. It is similar for our part-time courses. It is adult education so it is more age based. We operate an accelerated programme and we have an entry requirement for that. However, that is an accelerated programme where people who already have another award can do the programme faster. In our higher education, there are entry Central Applications Office, CAO, points for Teagasc-linked higher education courses, but they are set by the higher education institutions.

As regards CAP, we are certainly looking at that. In 2018, Teagasc concluded the Teagasc education vision exercise.

At the forefront of that exercise were the requirements for the young farmers of the future. That consultation involved many stakeholders, including a couple of hundred farmers and a range of farming organisations and agencies. Sustainability was identified as the major area, and compliance and governance were also identified as being particularly important. In addition, smart farming, digital and the business area were also highlighted. Within this as well, however, technical areas would also remain important.

As the courses and curriculums are reviewed, we must work with the awarding body, which is Quality and Qualifications Ireland, QQI. These are not Teagasc awards anymore. Each time the award comes up for review, however, we examine the changing requirements. Sustainability and all these areas will have an increasingly strong focus within the awards. Modules exist in areas such as business, but also in technology and digital technology. We also have a farm planning programme at level 6 that takes students through the whole farm planning exercise for their business, not only if they want to stay in farming but also in case they might want to consider other options. The students are therefore appraising their future in respect of land resources and the options that may be available outside farming.

The education vision exercise also recommended that we focus more on the entrepreneurial aspect of how farmers use their resources for the future. We are bearing that aspect in mind. The other point which came through in the report was that we need to focus on improving the problem-solving skills of farmers in the next generation, because it is very much an industry centred on problem solving. What is required in that regard is not just imparting theory but also helping people to gain practical skills.

Turning to apprenticeships, this again is an area that came through in the education vision report and it is one we are keen to progress. In the last call for apprenticeship proposals, Teagasc submitted five land sector apprenticeship proposals on behalf of the industry. Two were in farming, one at level 6 to qualify as a farm technician and one at level 7 to gain an ordinary degree in farm management. We also submitted two proposals in the area of horticulture, one in applied horticulture and one in sports turf, as well as one in the area of equine studies. Those proposals are in the development stage and it is a long process to approval. We are working on the quality assurance frameworks for those five apprenticeships which we hope to submit to QQI this summer. Hopefully, the first of those apprenticeships will go to QQI for validation this autumn. Other bodies have audited these proposals as well, including SOLAS, the Higher Education Authority, HEA, and employers. The work is in progress and we hope those five apprenticeship schemes will all be launched and up and running by the end of 2022.

Turning to the graduate survey look back, we already carried out a look-back survey of graduates who qualified five years ago. The key findings from that survey are that the majority of people, based on their replies to the survey, are still involved in farming and have quickly got involved, in a matter of years, in the management aspect of their farms. Looking back over the survey replies, some 90% of the people who responded are involved at a management level in a farm, either through a partnership or as the manager within five years of qualifying from the course. We also find that more than 70% of respondents indicate they have increased their level of farming activity. We also look at the numbers who join farming discussion groups, such as profit monitor uptake and all those areas, and a significant number are implementing the practices we recommend.

Photo of Victor BoyhanVictor Boyhan (Independent)
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I thank Mr. Pettit.

Photo of Paul DalyPaul Daly (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the representatives of Teagasc and welcome them. I have several questions. To follow on somewhat from the questions posed by Senator Boyhan regarding Teagasc's input into the curriculum for agricultural science as a subject at second level, I would like to see Teagasc having more of an input in that regard. I ask Mr. Pettit to comment on Teagasc's current role in that regard. Regarding the green certificate - and I emphasise that I am asking a question here and not proffering an opinion - there were issues earlier in the year when many of the courses, especially those offered in conjunction with the ETBs, were well oversubscribed. There were massive waiting lists for places and people could just not get on those courses.

Much of the commentary at the time focused on there being no way during the selection process to pick genuine student farmers. I refer to students seeking to gain entry to these courses as a means of pursuing a career in agriculture or to take over the home farm. I contrast those applicants with those who were just signing up possibly - and I reiterate that I am asking a question here and not proffering an opinion - to acquire a green certificate to facilitate property transfers. Tax relief is available for the holders of green certificates. Could Teagasc change its selection process to overcome that issue, if it was an issue?

In passing, I also mention the role of Teagasc in respect of farm safety when it comes to education in the agricultural sector. While Teagasc already plays a role in this area and safety modules form part of the courses run in its agricultural colleges, and also in the courses run in conjunction with ETBs, and relevant information is also disseminated as part of its knowledge transfer schemes and shared with its clients, what about the people outside those loops? Does Teagasc have plans to address the way it can educate and-or influence those people in respect of a subject as important as farm safety? Teagasc does have a serious responsibility in respect of this role. I refer not only to education in farm safety, but the implementation of farm safety. I take serious issue with people who are not clients of Teagasc or who do not attend its courses not being addressed by the organisation concerning farm safety. I feel this aspect must be addressed.

I have communicated with Mr. Pettit regarding this next topic, which is an important one and many genuine people are impacted by it. The age profiles for full-time college education, as well as the part-time courses, were mentioned already by Mr. Pettit. Applicants must be over the age of 23 to get a place on the part-time course. There have been situations where the health of the primary farmer, or whatever, has meant that the next generation to take over the farm, whether that is a young girl or a boy, must leave school once he or she reaches the age of 17. Young people in this situation are staying at home to farm. They are the next generation farmers and they require education in this area, but at the same time they are also providing essential labour on the farm.

Such a situation may arise because of health constraints in the case of parents or the current farmer. Those young people will not be able to leave the farm and go away to college full time. People in that kind of situation are ideal candidates for the part-time course, and can do such a course, but they must wait until they are 23 years old. I see the reasoning behind the age limits for entry to these courses, and if everybody could undertake these courses part time that would not be very good for the agricultural college system in future, but I respectfully request that Teagasc take a more considerate approach to exceptional and special cases, such as those I have described.

Photo of Jackie CahillJackie Cahill (Tipperary, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Senator.

Mr. Tony Pettit:

I thank Senator Daly for his questions. Regarding agricultural science resources, when the new curriculum was being established in this area we did have some consultation and input into that process with the Department of Education and Science, and the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, NCCA, at the time. We maintain links to try to help teachers of agricultural science at second level. They approach Teagasc and we provide resources on our website for schools as well. We are always willing to help. Our Teagasc research centres and colleges are always there to support teachers with particular projects or if they need information from us. We are certainly keen to help agricultural science teachers in any way we can. If they want any kind of specific professional development opportunities with Teagasc, for example, we will facilitate such endeavours. We indicated that to those teachers previously.

Turning to the selection process for the green certificate, we aim to accommodate all those applying for places on the course. Demand has been strong for our adult education programmes, as we call them, in recent years. Our courses are separate from those of the ETBs. We are not linked. Our courses are approved separately by QQI, as are those of the ETBs in their own right. We try to take on and accommodate people as best we can on the courses we run. Changing those selection criteria for our courses would be a matter for consideration by the Teagasc authority. There is a challenge involved in trying to verify when people have a real need, as opposed to when they cannot be considered as much of a priority. However, I will refer those comments back for consideration within Teagasc. Similarly, in respect of the age requirement to be over 23 years old on entry, we certainly always look at individual cases and we have made exceptions for people whose circumstances, for bona fide reasons, mean they cannot enter our education courses in the normal fashion.

We try to make arrangements for them and not confine them to the courses for those over 23. The course is validated and approved by QQI as one for people over 23 and by and large the expectation is that not all the people on it will be over 23. We look at it on a case by case basis when these situations arise and have accommodated people who are under 23.

Safety is important in the Teagasc courses and there are modules on farm and food safety. It is also built into all the skills activities within the courses so it is integrated in that regard. We work with various organisations such as FBD and farm organisations on the Champions for Safety initiative that we run across the colleges. Outside the colleges, the Teagasc advisory service also runs half-day or one-day courses on farm safety. I take the point that other people may need to be accommodated and I will take that into consideration with our colleagues. Dr. Lalor might like to comment on that as well.

Dr. Stan Lalor:

As regards the Senator's question on farm safety, it is interrelated to how we educate our students in their awareness of farm safety. There is a wider issue here in our reach with farmers on that topic. I will highlight a few things. In recent years we have changed and increased our resources in this area, such as the number of people engaged full-time in health and safety and our advisory structure. We have separated internal health and safety issues from Teagasc and the people responsible for that from our outreach on health and safety to the farming community. That is an area in which we are very active, in both research and advisory activities. Regarding how we reach the wider clients, we obviously have reach with our clients but it is very important to reach the wider farming population as well. Our ConnectEd programme, which is mentioned in our briefing note, is trying to reach a wider area. On the one hand there are rural professionals working with this cohort of farmers with whom Teagasc might not have the same reach but the farmers themselves can also interact with that platform by attending webinars and various information outlets. Within the overall knowledge transfer approach in Teagasc there is the wider area of interconnectivity in the agricultural knowledge innovation system, AKIS. That is featuring very prominently in some of the discussions around European policy, particularly on CAP. Within our knowledge transfer activities we are very conscious of not just dealing with the farmers we have as clients in our system but also reaching those wider farmers and the professionals who engage with them, whether private consultants or people working in agri-input industries professional services and so on. That is an area in which we are active and want to continue developing more and more. Health and safety is particularly relevant and important.

Photo of Matt CarthyMatt Carthy (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)
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I again thank our guests for coming along to this meeting. The committee is united. We are not united on many things but we are certainly united in the view that education in the agrifood sector is crucially important if we are to sustain and develop the sector in Ireland and meet the many challenges coming down the line. I have a brief question on the Covid response. Teagasc students were given, by and large, the same supports as other higher education students during the course of the pandemic, such as the laptop scheme and so on. From responses I have received to parliamentary questions and FOI requests, it appears these supports were provided from within Teagasc’s existing budget and that no additional supports were given by the Departments of Agriculture, Food and the Marine or Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science to those schemes. I ask our guests to confirm whether that is the case.

To touch again on green certs, does Teagasc feel it has the capacity to deal with all of those applications? Is there currently a waiting list or backlog? What numbers of new applicants does it expect next year and can it deal with those numbers? Is there a need to work with the ETB sector? What role does Teagasc see for the ETB further education centres in delivering green certs into the future? I understand that ETBs can access funds through the national training fund to provide green cert course. Does Teagasc have the same access to those resources? I ask the witnesses to provide clarification on that.

Some of the parliamentary questions I submitted to the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science on green certs were transferred to the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, who then told me he did not have any oversight of green certs within ETBs. It appears that without the likes of Teagasc being given a very clear role in directing the green cert output, we could have a serious loss of direction. Joined-up thinking is crucially important and goes back to the very first question asked. All our speakers have indicated that. Teagasc is considered a leading organisation in agricultural research. However, it seems to be more ad hocwhen it comes to agricultural education. Teagasc colleges have links to many other local third level institutions and courses but it appears this is a result of arrangements made locally. Is there scope for a more co-ordinated approach? Last year we heard reports that agriculture science teachers at second level were at odds with the Department of Education on the new leaving certificate course. Did Teagasc have any input into those second level courses? Would it be fair to say that more can be done to improve joined-up thinking across Teagasc, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science and the Department of Education?

Mr. Tony Pettit:

The funding for the Covid supports came from within the Teagasc budget. Last year, there were some savings as the year went on because activities were not normal. All the funding measures we had for Covid supports were sanctioned and approved by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine but they came from within the actual Teagasc budget and were approved by the Department.

Regarding demand, the strong area of demand has been for those adult green cert programmes, particularly in the north-west part of the country. We have had good support from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine over the last number of years. Since 2014 a total of about 117 temporary education officer posts were sanctioned, with 20 approved earlier this year. They have helped boost our intake substantially in recent years. It would be very difficult for us to operate, plan and maintain a high level of intake without that level of ongoing support. This year we hope to enrol 1,500 or maybe somewhat more in those part-time distance education courses.

We will also be enrolling people in our full-time courses and across our higher education courses. In terms of gross enrolments, we are probably enrolling 2,500 students per year across various programmes. It is challenging in parts of the country and we need the temporary education officer support to provide that.

Demand in certain areas may be somewhat ahead of capacity. That is why we use the temporary education officer model to allocate resources on a flexible basis. Of the 20 education officers we are appointing this year, 15 will go to the north west, six to Donegal, four to Ballyhaise College, two in the north east and two in Mayo. As there was particular demand, we are trying to shift and match the resources all across that area. We also maintain our permanent education officer numbers to reflect demand in those regions, meaning that it would be somewhat higher than in other areas.

The ETBs are approved separately to run programmes by QQI. Teagasc has no role in that. It is a separate activity. There are areas between Teagasc and the ETBs such as learner supports and areas within courses. Teagasc has the strongest expertise in actual agricultural production and the financial aspects of it. There are personal development modules which we and ETBs could work together to deliver. There have been some arrangements locally in that regard.

On the second level agricultural science course, we do not have a direct input into it. We were involved in some of the earlier consultations. Our main remit is to help the students and teachers. For example, in projects, we can give them a steer, resources and information as how they might develop projects for fifth year and sixth year students.

We sit outside the National Training Fund. As apprenticeships are funded through the National Training Fund, Teagasc would be eligible to access that money. In terms of other schemes, such as skills to advance, we sit outside of that. If the ETBs were able to draw down funding for research from the National Training Fund and Teagasc was outside of it, there would probably be some disparity and that we would have a level playing field in that regard. Overall, with ETBs and some private providers, there is probably a need for some joined-up thinking in terms of industry and agricultural education training.

Photo of Jackie CahillJackie Cahill (Tipperary, Fianna Fail)
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I call Deputy Ring.

Photo of Michael RingMichael Ring (Mayo, Fine Gael)
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Can the Chairman hear me?

Photo of Jackie CahillJackie Cahill (Tipperary, Fianna Fail)
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Photo of Michael RingMichael Ring (Mayo, Fine Gael)
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Or Cathaoirleach, as the new title is now.

I welcome our guests. Agriculture is gone very high-tech. There are a number of sectors in the agriculture game. There are people who are high-tech and full-time farmers. There are those, like we have in the west, who are in farming on a part-time basis.

One has people putting their names for courses hoping that they will be called for them. In another case, the green certificate might be essential for a farmer to draw down grants. There was a big furore in my area this year because there was such a demand for green certificate courses. I heard Mr. Pettit say Teagasc will be allocating extra resources to the west and north west, which is important. When the Department is making the rules on how people can draw down payments, does Teagasc have any input? Can it say it is not in a position to give the farmers the courses they need?

I have great respect for Teagasc, which has been ahead of the game over the years. Farming and the whole science of agriculture are changing. At the same time, there is a module of farmers out there who will never change. What they need is support, help and back-up from Teagasc and other groups. These are farmers who are not in it on a full-time basis but just about struggling to make a living out of it. They are finding the rules and regulations, along with the educational needs, difficult. Has Teagasc any proposals or support for these kinds of people?

Mr. Tony Pettit:

We are allocating the bulk of the green certificates to the education officers that we got towards the north west. It is an area of demand across the north west and the north east.

The education needs of farmers are changing and increasing. There are different categories of farmers and different levels of programmes and courses. On the green certificate, people complete a level 5 certificate in agriculture and a level 6 specific purpose in farming. People who may be going back into a more full-time and commercial level of farming are not required to go beyond that. We would recommend, however, that they would take the level 6 advanced certificate and certainly look at the apprenticeship groups when they come on stream. We accept that not every farmer is going beyond the minimal requirement for schemes. It is advisable that some would take up further courses in terms of the nature of their farming, however.

The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and Revenue own the schemes and incentives directed at young farmers. As such, we do not directly influence those, other than that we would be feeding back to the Department in terms of likely demand scenarios. We would be indicating where we see pressure points arising in terms of demand, the need for us to put on more courses and hire more staff. The Department has accommodated Teagasc in that regard. There have been 117 temporary education officers for whom we have secured sanction over that period.

Dr. Stan Lalor:

I have responsibility for the wider knowledge transfer area which includes education and the advisory service. We put those together within the organisation because we very much see the interaction with the farmers as a continuum of those two services. More and more, they are overlapping. One does not have a farmer coming through a course who suddenly becomes educated and then advice is all they need. Ongoing training and facilitation are needed as well.

A point was made that some farmers are struggling with rules and regulations, as well as ensuring they are meeting all the requirements and paperwork of various schemes. An ongoing challenge for our advisory service is to be sufficiently resourced in terms of being able to help the farmers who require support from us. We must also balance this with full-time high-tech farmers who have development needs in terms of their businesses and farm development opportunities. It is quite a range for our advisers to span but that is what we continue to try to do as much as possible.

For the high-tech end, we are developing the area of continuous professional development for farmers. Mr. Pettit mentioned the education vision programme. One of its recommendations was that education does not stop when one walks out of the college or when one graduates with a green certificate. It is an ongoing process, particularly with the challenges in the sector between sustainability and climate. Being able to reach and help farmers in terms of the evolving requirements of all that is something on which we are keen.

We are launching a programme in Teagasc called the Evolve programme geared towards helping and reaching farmers by recognising the farmers who participate and engage in those types of development, training exercises and activities in that they can record and get credit for that. The programme is in development.

Photo of Tim LombardTim Lombard (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the witnesses from Teagasc and thank them for the outline of their statement. I want to talk to them about the farm discussion group model and how it is working out. Obviously, last year, there were issues regarding Covid-19 and farm discussion groups. It is great to see they reverted to Zoom and other mediums. Has Teagasc started back on the practical footing of having those discussion groups at farm level? Has it put a working programme in place to tie all them together?

The model is successful and proactive. There are 12 meetings monthly, with a different farmer every month, an exchange of knowledge and knowledge transfer on a practical level. It is probably even getting at a cohort of farmers from a different generation. It has worked exceptionally well. Where does Teagasc see that going over the next two or three months, in particular? When will it start in the fields? What is the future of that programme? How will it benefit the farming and agricultural community going forward?

Dr. Stan Lalor:

I will answer that one. The farm discussion group model has been an evolving innovation within the delivery of knowledge transfer over the past 30 or 40 years but, certainly, huge advances have been made in the past ten years. Teagasc has embraced it thoroughly, in that our approach to advisory services is towards group delivery models. That has advantages from the point of view of delivery. One can reach more farmers with information quicker and faster, when one can group them together. The studies done on discussion group participation are positive, from the point of view of what the farmers get out of it, compared to less contact on a one-to-one basis.

There is a balance to be struck between one-to-one advisory contact and discussion groups. That personal level of contact is still important. That is something we need to continue to be able to deliver successfully. From a farmer's perspective, that group interaction is significant from the point of view of the peer-to-peer learning in which farmers can share in each other's experiences and even the social aspects, given the way society has gone, especially pre-Covid-19. We are probably less isolated when more people are working at home due to Covid-19. Previous to that, the social aspect was recognised as being important as well.

As expected, when Covid-19 arrived, everything went online. Suddenly, these discussion groups had to cope with how to use various software and technologies, such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams and so on, to engage. We successfully kept groups going in that context. Towards the middle of last year as the restrictions eased, we were back doing many face-to-face meetings, which returned online for the early part of this year. However, we are starting to organise face-to-face discussion group meetings again.

Well-established groups in which the farmers know one another well are probably less vulnerable, but we are conscious of groups at the earlier stage of their development, in terms of the social cohesion within the group and familiarity between the farmers. Those groups are more strained when they are trying to depend completely on online delivery. However, we now have farmers who are better trained and more open-minded to the online engagement. Some discussion topics lend themselves adequately and quite well to online delivery models.

There have been some innovations. I have noticed some advisers, in trying to keep to the approach to discussion groups fresh through the virtual delivery, are changing aspects such as the timing of the group meetings to make them shorter, snappier and more frequent. There have been involving innovations, in agreement with and under the direction of, the groups involved in terms of trying to keep them fresh and alive.

In the future, there is probably scope for a blended approach in which there is a mix and match of both. The face-to-face and social aspects of it are important as well. It is relevant that knowledge transfer, KT, groups were supported in the previous round of the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP. There are opportunities for that to be supported again. The scope of the group is not just about group meetings. It is also about other aspects of group activities, whether it is shared experiences of technology usage or, particularly, the social aspects of groups such as trips away to broaden the everyday experience of the farmer. We see those aspects coming through loud and clear in the effective way the groups continue to be relevant in terms of a knowledge transfer. They will continue in our programme.

Photo of Jackie CahillJackie Cahill (Tipperary, Fianna Fail)
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As no members are indicating that they have questions, I thank our two witnesses from Teagasc, Dr. Stan Lalor and Mr. Tony Pettit, for their contributions to the meeting today and the way they answered the questions. The meeting now stands adjourned. The next meeting of the joint committee will be held in public session at 12.30 p.m. on Thursday, 27 May, when we are meeting Department officials with regard to forestry issues.

The joint committee adjourned at 5.16 p.m. until 12.30 p.m. on Thursday, 27 May 2021.