Bad weather takes its toll

Lack of winter fodder and spring grass has resulted in an estimated 9,000 extra cattle deaths south of the border over January and February.

Bad weather has highlighted the vulnerability of rural Ireland — and policymakers should take note.

People working in farming comprise a quarter of the rural labour force.

Therefore, a significant share of rural spending has dried up, due to family farm income falling about 12% in 2012, mostly due to bad weather.

Granted, that followed a 30% income rise in 2011 — but incomes have continued to slide, with the effects of the bad 2012 weather now magnified by the cold spring of 2013.

The worst impact has been in northern areas, where unseasonal heavy snow at Easter has claimed at least 6,000 livestock in Northern Ireland alone.

But there has been a toll on farm animals in the rest of the country too, with the effects of last summer’s washout wearing animals down, and the shortage of winter fodder and spring grass, resulting in an estimated 9,000 extra cattle deaths south of the border over January and February.

This has happened despite huge farmer expenditure on extra feed, which has left many of them with severe cash-flow problems.

That could leave incomes reduced again this year, especially in the border region, which has the largest number of economically vulnerable farms, and has been worst hit by bad weather.

Bankers have confirmed overdraft balances about 15% higher compared to last year among farmer customers. Milk deliveries for the year to April were at least 3% under quota.

The overall national outcome is likely to be disappointing farm income figures.

But it’s not all bad news; there are good price prospects for the main livestock enterprises this year.

And farmers have to take the ups and downs in their stride, and stay positive as they work on.

They have direct CAP payments to fall back on; they comprised 73% of farm income in 2011, but fingers are crossed while reform of the CAP from 2015 continues, which could have major consequences in direct payments for Irish farmers.

Perhaps the biggest impact of the 2012-13 setbacks in farming will be on the broader rural economy.

Reduced farmer spending power is the last thing rural Ireland needs, at a time of unprecedented pressures, in which many communities are fighting for survival, according to Social Justice Ireland, the social partnership group led by Fr Seán Healy and Sr Brigid Reynolds, working to build a just society.

They have calculated that the allocation to the rural economy was reduced by 78% in Budget 2013, inevitably making it difficult to maintain viable communities.

Social Justice Ireland believes key decisions are now crucial for the survival of rural communities.

Their case is compelling, especially for the weakest people among the 40% of the population living in rural areas, disproportionately hit by austerity measures on top of persistent unemployment and emigration of young people.

Rural development becomes more and more difficult as skilled workers leave, and an ageing population emerges.

Entrepreneurs trying to innovate and develop jobs and income in rural areas face the extra challenges of inadequate basic services such as transport and broadband.

The lack of accessible, reliable and integrated rural transport makes it difficult in most of rural Ireland to access employment and public services.

Several large firms have moved out of the south west of Ireland due to the inadequate broadband, according to Social Justice Ireland.

The government strategy of heavily relying on foreign direct investment has widened the employment gap between urban and rural areas.

On top of these disadvantages comes the further 100 closures of garda stations planned for 2013 (39 were closed in 2012).

Small rural schools are losing up to 100 posts due to the Budget 2012 increase in the pupil threshold for teacher allocations, and a value for money review of smaller schools being undertaken by the Department of Education could result in closure of more rural schools.

Social Justice Ireland lists key policy priorities in rural development to revive the countryside.

Instead, they see EU-funded rural economy diversification measures lagging behind agriculture and environment policies funded by the EU.

In the 2007-2013 funding period, funded diversification measures didn’t commence until mid-2009, leaving only €109m of the allocated €428m spent by 2011.

The Government said recently that a full spend of the €314m available as LEADER rural development funding for qualifying projects ahead of the 2014 deadline is very unlikely.

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