The beef protest has revealed that Irish farming is something of a one-trick pony (or a two-trick pony at best), with only milk production offering reasonable prospects of regular income, volatile though it may be from year to year.
Unfortunately, the sector that most farmers depend on, beef, has hit a rock, and it could sink altogether if Brexit goes as badly as some fear.
A recent Teagasc viability of farming assessment rated 11% of suckler beef farmers as viable, with 46% sustainable, and 43% vulnerable.
For other cattle farms, 26% are viable, 37% sustainable, and 37% vulnerable.
Economically viable means income is sufficient to remunerate family labour at the minimum wage, and provide a 5% return on capital invested in non-land assets such as machinery and livestock.
Economically sustainable means an off-farm income source is needed to keep the farm going.
If the farm business is non-viable, and neither the farmer or spouse works off the farm, the household is economically vulnerable.
Only 13% of dairy farmers are rated economically vulnerable; 72% are viable, and 14% are sustainable.
Like beef, sheep farming depends on income support from the EU to keep farmers afloat financially. Only one in five sheep farms is rated viable, 36% are sustainable, and 44% are vulnerable.
Tillage is the other main farm enterprise with reasonable prospects of regular income, such that 63% are rated viable, 19% sustainable, and only 18% vulnerable.
But Irish pig farmers would be going broke if it wasn’t for African swine fever rampaging through Asia.
Therefore, along with dairy and tillage, the saviour of the farm economy is our high level of employment.
Without off-farm jobs, up to 89% of suckler farmers, 74% of other cattle farmers, and 80% of sheep farmers, would be rated economically vulnerable.
Could more have been done to generate gainful employment from the land?
There’s always forestry. But it is seen by many the point of no return, to put the family farm permanently under trees, even if it seems the right thing to do for the world for climate mitigation.
Perhaps the most glaring omission in Irish agriculture policy has been the ruling out of farms as significant contributors to renewable energy.
As far back as 2015, biogas in the EU28 contributed 4% of the primary supply of gaseous fuels (including natural gas), coming mainly from dedicated crops (51%) and manure (22%).
Huge acreages of crops are grown across the EU for anaerobic digestion to produce biogas. Farms supply material to 1,000 biogas plants in France, 6,000 in Germany, and 600 in the UK.
But there’s only just the beginning of a farm biogas industry in Ireland, with a Gas Networks Ireland target to deliver 20% of Ireland’s gas supply by 2030 and 50% by 2050 from renewable sources.
It remains to be seen how it will go, with earlier Irish attempts at renewable energy from farms littered with failures.
A Government-backed biofuels scheme in the mid-noughties left farmers who grew oilseed rape for it shut out of the biofuels sector, and had to be abandoned by farm families who were adversely affected mentally, physically and financially.
More farmers were left scarred by their experiences growing miscanthus a few years ago, despite drawing government grant aid for planting it.
Despite these setbacks, 55% of farmers have said they are interesting in pursuing renewable energy projects, in ifac’s Farm Report 2019, a comprehensive survey including the views of over 2,000 farmers.
They shouldn’t hold their breath waiting for Government guidance or aid.
Investment in the broader renewable electricity sector is under threat, because the Government hasn’t progressed the Renewable Electricity Support Scheme, more than one year after it was announced.
Unfortunately, there are signs of paralysis in the Government’s renewable energy plans, in contrast to the EU as a whole being well on track to reach its 20% renewable target by 2020.
Ireland is one of a group also including France, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, and the UK which the EU says need to accelerate to renewables growth rate of more than 1% per year, to get on target.