Why you should worry about farming

7th November 2001

“For God’s sake, write about Dublin or something Dubliners are interested in”, says the editor.

Well he’s not going to like this one because this column is about a subject not usually close to the hearts of Dubliners – farming.

I’m going to get to the point quickly.

Irish farming is in a disastrous position. The family farm is in terminal and rapid decline. If the current trends are maintained, Irish agriculture will become a technology intensive industry minus its farmers.

Why is this a problem for Dubliners?

Firstly, because intensive farming has problems producing wholesome and safe food and, secondly, the ownership of Irish land will be concentrated into fewer and fewer hands with a consequent loss of amenity to urban dwellers.

Many Dubliners seem to be of the opinion that rural Ireland is teeming with millionaire farmers driving Mercs. The actual situation is an entirely different sorry story.

There are around 140,000 farms in Ireland (south). This number is declining at about 3,000 per year. 40 per cent of farms yield an income of less than £5,000 per year and 62 per cent of farms yield less than £10,000 per year. Unsurprisingly, 33 per cent of farmers have to work off the farm in order to keep it going.

But that’s only half the story. Overall, actual farming only provides 32 per cent of this meagre income. The rest is in direct payments to farmers. In some sectors payments account for up to 124 per cent of income.

Think about that.

Not only is the direct payments paying all of the farmer’s income but it is also subsidising the lossmaking business as well.

Some people will doubt whether this picture is true. They will wonder whether farmers are pulling the wool over the statisticians eyes.

The proof is that farmers are walking away from the land. The proof is that they are handing the land over to foresters to grow cheap, quick-growing Christmas trees, used to make cheap doors. The proof is that young people are not entering farming – 66 per cent of farmers are over 55 years of age.

And yet the Irish food business is still enormously important to Ireland. It is estimated that some 350,000 jobs are dependent on agriculture.

The problem is that 140,000 farms are not required to produce the raw material for this industry. Some activists believe that the decline will bottom out at the 20,000 farms mark.

The remaining farms will be intensive, capital dependent businesses, run from offices by people who will probably never put on a pair of wellies. These agri-businesses will soak up land and charge heavily for amenity use.

The danger is that the techniques they will use will lead to deteriorating standards in foods, with specialisation in breeding and feeding that will leave agriculture prone to food scares like BSE and salmonella. Not to mention hormones and genetic modification.

I honestly don’t know the answer. I believe that it probably lies in diversification, together with organic farming and the regulation of food output.

The end of the family farm is a huge issue, not only for rural Ireland, but for anyone who eats food or values the outdoors. We need to start thinking about it very quickly.

As well as that…

The ownership of land

The dispute over the Old Head of Kinsale, where a private consortium has asserted their right to keep walkers off their land, raises huge issues over who owns what in relation to land.

The problem is that there is no distinction in law between personal private property and commercial private property so that each piece of property is as sacrosanct as a private dwelling.

This doesn’t matter when it applies to a building but when it applies to a beach, an island or a mountain, then it puts owners in a position of control (the right to exclude) to which they are clearly not entitled.

This will be the source of many a row for years to come.