Big problems, local solutions

Next week’s EU Council of Ministers meeting has been the focus of increasingly tense debate between Irish farmers across all sectors and income levels.

Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney has consistently stated that Ireland is pushing for flexibility in the distribution of direct farm payments. While the EU Commission had started out determined to push through its contentious ‘flattening’ and ‘greening’ proposals, several member states have pleaded for freedom to adapt the measures to suit their own unique local circumstances.

While Ireland is not the strongest of EU member states, its voice has certainly been heard loud and clear. Ireland has managed to retain most of its overall funding envelope (shedding around 3% versus the c.10% originally mooted), and it continues to push its case for a derogation that would allow it a degree of autonomy over how its funds are distributed within Ireland.

Even Commissioner Ciolos, a prominent supporter of the distribution of funds towards both weaker EU member states and weaker farming regions, has stated that he believes the “front-loading” model of paying a premium on the first 40 acres in the per hectare (of ‘flattening’) SFP payment can only work if member states are given flexibility in its local application.

Understandably, Irish farmers have been very vocal in stating their view that the flattening model generally does not suit this country’s model. However, the jury is out on front-loading. Revolt has erupted within the IFA over its stance against redistribution. A group of 23 prominent IFA members in the north-west have published a letter which is highly critical of their national executive’s stance on redistribution.

Farmers in remote areas are understandably supportive of any redistribution of money that would benefit them. The average SFP payment being received by farmers in Leitrim is €169/ha (€67.60/ac). This compares with an average payment of €223 per hectare in Clare, and €350 per hectare in Kilkenny.

Nonetheless, the IFA and ICMSA share similar views on the need to protect the country’s most productive farmers. Redistributing too much money to the lesser producing areas will have the unwanted effect of hitting those farmers whose output is critical to the expansion ambitions of Irish agri-food, the blueprint for which is the Food Harvest 2020 report.

In recent weeks, divided opinion has also very clearly emerged within Fine Gael on this issue, with TDs lining up to defend the interests of farmers in their own local constituencies.

Opinion in Cork is very much against any overly invasive redistribution of funds. While estimates on numbers of protestors vary, it seemed to me that in excess of 2,000 farmers turned up outside Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney’s office in Carrigaline last Saturday to voice their concerns about SFP redistribution and other aspects of CAP reform.

If some TDs are bowing to local pressure on this, it would seem that at least Minister Coveney is seeking an equitable compromise, and one that is not entirely Cork-centric. An impossible compromise? Perhaps not. In terms of the overall annual Irish envelope, the EU had sought for more than €300m to be redistributed. The minister has already talked this down to €80m.

Every statement from both the Dáil and Brussels suggests Ireland’s demands for flexibility will be acceded to. Given such autonomy, with the agri-food sector’s critical role to play in economic recovery, the Irish Government is hardly likely to do anything to seriously damage the viability of our most productive farmers.

Even ICSA president Gabriel Gilmartin, despite representing one of the sectors likely to emerge as a winner from redistribution, is also calling for balance.

Mr Gilmartin said: “We can’t realistically cater for every hectare owned by every landowner in the country who is under the average, without destroying active, commercial cattle and sheep farmers above the average. It is unacceptable to contemplate cutting farmers by 20% or 30% who are in receipt of modest payments, either in terms of the hectare or in terms of the whole farm.

“On the other hand, I passionately believe there are many farmers with low payments, by no fault of their own, who need an increase. There must be a way to target the increase per hectare, rather than allocating it to every hectare in Ireland.”

*Farming Editor Stephen Cadogan returns next week.


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