Wednesday, 14 September 2011
I listened with interest to the matter raised by Senator Power and the response of the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee. If he can bring half that commitment and enthusiasm to the matter I am raising, we will make progress too. I am asking the Minister of State to report on the Government's current thinking with regard to the future of those who have traditionally been referred to as small farmers. Perhaps that is no longer politically correct and it might be better to refer to land owners with limited land, or something like that.
Earlier this afternoon, the House debated job creation in the presence of the Minister, Deputy Bruton. We all know the scale of the economic development difficulties that are being encountered throughout the country, especially in rural Ireland. We all know that the creation of jobs in towns and rural areas is crucial for the future of this country. Agriculture has always played a significant role in job creation and there was a time when not merely thousands, but tens of thousands of people, were employed on the land. Many of those worked full time on small farmers; others worked part time. It created a significant degree of economic activity across the countryside. Obviously, since our accession to the EU the position has changed from an agriculture perspective but the most recent figures would still seem to suggest that, on the basis of there being 120,000 farmers in Ireland, almost 60% of them have less than 30 hectares of land, and there is still a significant number who do not have vast land holdings.
It is important that we do not try to create a two-speed agriculture sector and set large against small. That certainly is not the purpose of my question to the Minister. However, it is opportune, because of the negotiations at Brussels on the future development of the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, and the possible changes to agriculture support, to ensure that as far as possible we allow the maximum number of people to remain on the land.
It is obviously important that the larger commercial farmers are fully supported by Europe and the Government. Food production on this island is important, not only for Ireland but for Europe and the world. There is a growing shortage of food on the world market and there must be a significant role for the large commercial units and the large commercial farmers. We must support those people to the maximum extent possible.
Unfortunately, on the other side of the spectrum, because of bureaucracy, red tape and EU regulations, a large number of small farmers have left the land, have even stopped part-time farming and see no future for themselves or their families in farming. I hope the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, and his colleagues in Government will commit themselves to ensuring that we take whatever policy measures are required to keep the maximum number of those people farming. It is good, not only for agriculture but for rural areas from a social and community perspective. It is part of a big jigsaw. I merely ask that when the Minister of State and his colleagues make the final crucial decisions with our colleagues in Europe on the future funding of agriculture we will still see a role for those with between 40 and 80 acres of land, we will not say they have no future on the land and they are no longer deemed farmers, and we will put in place the measures and structures to keep as many of them farming as possible. That will pay for itself over and over again not only economically but socially and from a community perspective.
I thank Senator Bradford for proposing this motion. My senior Minister, Deputy Coveney, cannot be present to answer and I have a written reply here which I will read. I know from where the Senator is coming. It is on the agenda in both Houses tonight. The one good story out there at present is agriculture, but we cannot sit on it. Prices are good for the first time in several years and, whether one is a big or small farmer, people are getting a fair price for their product. With 2020 coming and the opening up of the doors for production, every acre of Ireland will have a productive use, whether it is in beef, dairy, organics, vegetables or whatever. The senior Minister states clearly everywhere he goes that, since I have been appointed to work with him, we have worked to ensure that all farmers will be well protected and that, in particular, farmers who want to produce food are the ones who will be supported most. There will be no one paid to stay at home anymore because the money is not there.
I am very much aware of the leaks as well. There are two sides to the story and there will be a winner and a loser in it. Now is the time to talk about it. I am sure by the time we take over the Presidency there will be a formula for it because we know how the IFA and the Opposition will keep the pressure on us. We, in Fine Gael, will be ahead of the posse the whole time. That is our intention.
I welcome the opportunity to deal with this motion. As the Senator is well aware, agriculture and the wider agrifood sector remain one of Ireland's most important indigenous manufacturing sectors. Agriculture and the continued viability of the country's 128,000 family farms is hugely important to our economy. It is central to the Government's plan for an export-led economic recovery. A major focus of my Department is to progress this objective. It also supports rural society and has a multiplier effect in terms of social, economic and environmental benefits throughout the country. To put this sector into focus, collectively the industry is responsible for some 136,000 jobs and has an annual output of approximately €22 billion with a significant export orientation running into several billion euros. Most telling, this sector represents 60% of manufacturing exports by indigenous firms.
Over the past year, this sector has performed particularly well. The Central Statistics Office figures show that aggregate farm income increased by 28% to €2,010 million in 2010, while the overall value of primary output increased by 12.2% or €22 million to €4,098 million. In 2010, exports of agrifood and drink increased by almost 11% and almost reached €8 billion. This was quite a spectacular performance and one which served to illustrate the undoubted potential of the sector. The good news story of 2010 has continued to date in 2011, with dairy exports increasing by 47% between January and May and exports for the overall sector increasing by 14 % in the first six months of 2011. The net effect is that there is a definite air of optimism and positivism in agriculture and the wider agrifood sector.
We are continuing to work on several fronts to maintain the long-term viability of farmers. At EU level, we are working to ensure a well balanced system of agricultural policy. What is needed is a system which will make agriculture more sustainable, will have a focus on its contribution to supplying the food needs of the world and will also sharpen our farm sector's competitive edge. In a nutshell, our view is that the future CAP must aspire to the twin objectives of competitiveness and sustainability. Now, more than ever, we need to focus on ensuring security of supply of safe, high quality and sustainably produced food at reasonable prices for our consumers and with reasonable returns to our farmers and processors.
Senators will be well aware that the recent Commission MFF proposals were the result of detailed policy debates at EU Agriculture Council at which the Minister, Deputy Coveney, vigorously participated. The negotiations were augmented by a vast amount of informal discussion and analysis, at which there was active Irish participation. These detailed and intensive CAP negotiations are continuing at all levels. The aim is that they will be concluded during the Danish Presidency but there is every possibility that they will not be concluded until the 11th hour and as such will slip into the Irish Presidency in the first half of 2013. The negotiations on the future CAP are therefore of enormous importance for Ireland and the Government is continuing to work to ensure a properly resourced CAP budget which will serve the interests of sustainable and profitable agriculture and the wider agrifood sector.
At national level, Food Harvest 2020 was published last year. This is an ambitious but realistic strategy for growth in the Irish agri-food sector over the next ten years. It was developed in collaboration with the Irish agri-food sector and its delivery will be driven by that sector.
Food Harvest 2020 is playing a huge part in our national economic recovery and has been incorporated into our national recovery plan and in our 2011-2014 programme for Government. Food Harvest 2020 emphasises the need to enhance competitiveness, increase sustainability and improve marketing strategies to deliver on the growth potential in the sector. This message is encapsulated in the caption "Smart Green Growth".
The growth targets for 2020 set by the committee concerned include the following targets for primary agriculture and industry: increasing the value of primary output by €1.5 billion; increasing value added by €3 billion; and achieving an export target of €12 billion for the sector.
Significant work has been done over the past year by the high level implementation committee, which was established to progress these targets and the 215 action points in Food Harvest 2020. This committee, which is chaired by the Minister, Deputy Coveney, encompasses the Department and the State agencies: Teagasc, Enterprise lreland, Bord Bia, BIM and the Environmental Protection Agency.
In July, "Milestones for Success" was published. This is the first progress report on Food Harvest 2020 and indicated that action had commenced on 63% of these 215 actions. In addition, "Milestones for Success" outlines more than 40 actions which the stakeholders will deliver over the coming year. It also sets out interim milestones for 2013 and 2015 to monitor developments. To ensure progress, the Minister has set quarterly targets which he will monitor at each of the high level implementation committee meetings.
Many of these targets are directed at helping farmers to improve their efficiency, competitiveness and financial viability. Among the wide range of actions mentioned in milestones, I want to pick out a few examples which give a flavour of what is being done to assist farmers become competitive and improve on their market returns, that is, Greenfield dairy project, the dairy discussion groups and the Bord Bia beef and lamb quality assurance schemes.
The Greenfield dairy project research involves a collaborative project between Teagasc, the Agricultural Trust, Allied Irish Banks and Glanbia to assist farmers to develop and expand their enterprises as the dairy sector moves towards quota abolition in 2015. Using real-time data from a commercial farm, the project is providing a national blueprint for low-cost milk production. It allows farmers avail of online data on best practice on yields, finance, animal health, farm management and so on. This data is augmented by farm walks and is made available to all farmers through Teagasc's advisory network and the BETTER Farm programme.
Funding has been provided to support the establishment of dairy discussion groups to speed up the transfer of technology, knowledge and best practice. These groups place particular emphasis on the adoption of best practice with regard to grassland management, breeding and financial management. Available data indicates that participation in the groups has resulted in an average economic return of approximately €200 per hectare. The target for 2012 is to increase participation from 6,000 to 8,000 farmers.
The beef and lamb quality assurance schemes, in which more than 30,000 farmers participate, are designed to assist access to market and improve market returns to farmers. A new aspect of these schemes is the development and accreditation by the United Kingdom Carbon Trust of a beef carbon footprint model for Irish beef. This is being incorporated into our national beef and lamb quality assurance scheme and is the first such scheme to include environmental standards. During the next year it will be extended by environmental benchmarks on water and biodiversity as well as into other areas of the food chain.
I emphasise that these are just some of the actions which the Government is progressing to ensure the viability of farmers and all farming activities. Further details are available in the Food Harvest 2020 and Food Harvest 2020Milestones for Success reports which are available on the Department's website. Since taking office, the Government has worked proactively to underpin the future development and prosperity of this vital sector and we remain fully committed to this task.
I thank the Minister for his comprehensive reply. I commend the Minister of State and his colleague the Minister, Deputy Coveney, on the work they are doing. No doubt we will come back to the findings. We need to set aside a significant amount of time, debate and thinking to ensure the viability of smaller farmers. It is crucial to keep a balance economically and socially in the country and it should be one of the Department's priorities as we negotiate our way through the minefield of the CAP reform. I acknowledge the absolute necessity of keeping our commercial farmers large and strong but we must not ignore the 50,000 or 60,000 people whose land holdings are not great but who have a major role to play in food production and the maintenance of the fabric of rural Ireland. It is a matter we will debate further in the coming months. I thank the Minister of State again for his work in the Department and his great commitment and hands-on approach to agriculture.