What a difference a year or two make in farming.
Falling milk prices since the spring of 2015, a completely new system last year for distributing €1.2bn per year of EU-funded farm income support, climate change becoming one of the most important factors in EU agriculture policy, and Britain voting last June to leave the EU.
The changes have left farmers punch drunk, but 60% remain optimistic about the future of farming, according to the annual Irish Examiner ICMSA farming poll.
It’s a high figure for a sector getting a buffeting from the international winds of change that determine its course, because 80% of its produce must be exported.
However, the 60% represents a 25% drop in optimism since 2013, when four out of five farmers were looking forward to good prospects.
And when 526 farmers were interviewed face-to-face a few weeks ago for the poll, the fall in confidence was obvious, and they said the likelihood of them expanding farm production is much diminished, with dairy farmers particularly cautious, compared to their outlook two or three years ago.
That’s why the survey has national economic significance, because the FoodWise 2025 10-year vision of sustainable Irish agri-food growth needs extra production on farms to expand food and drink exports to €19bn a year.
If farmers are to play their intended role in the Government’s plan for national economic recovery, some way must be found of revitalising their confidence.
More than half say Brexit will negatively affect their farming plans.
A quarter feel that their farm debt is excessive which is a much more favourable position than in most intensive-farming countries, but nevertheless a dampener on expansion. The poll also reveals a decline in ambition to buy or rent land this year.
And one third of dairy farmers in the poll were ready to accept an EU financial incentive in return for cutting milk production. The Irish closing date for that scheme was September 15, so we will soon know if farmers put their poll plan into action.
If they did, and if the scheme is a success across the EU, similar schemes (to pay farmers to produce less) may become a more prominent part of the Common Agricultural Policy, yet another threat to Irish food industry expansion.
However, the poll also helps to illustrate areas where farmers can be helped.
For example, almost two out of five dairy farmers surveyed favour their co-ops amalgamating to form larger co-ops — or they might be ready to move to a co-op that serves them better.
Co-ops may need to look after dairy farmers better — and schemes designed to advance Irish farming, in the €4bn rural development programme for Ireland, do not come well out of the poll.
Only 38% of farmers are satisfied with the TAMS farm- modernisation scheme, which has been beset by delays in payments and approvals, described as “catastrophic” by Macra Na Feirme.
Only 43% of the 526 farmers in the poll were satisfied with the GLAS environmental scheme.
While 40% said they were satisfied with the Knowledge Transfer Group Scheme, 38% of those surveyed didn’t know what to make of it.
Just under half (46%) of livestock farmers are happy with the Beef Data and Genomics Programme, which has also had its troubles.
Major efforts are needed by the Department of Agriculture to make these schemes work better for the farmers they are intended to help.
The poll shows that more than four out of five farmers agree that farming is one of the hardest ways to earn a living.
And they should know, because most of the younger farmers work second jobs outside the farm — jobs which are hopefully easier than farming.
All this, and the weather has now turned on farmers.
Even in balmy West Cork, much of the grain crops are still in the fields. Help for tillage farmers looks like a good starting point for the Government to start boosting farmer confidence.
Find more on the Irish Examiner ICMSA farming survey HERE
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