19 March 2009 Edition
'The most rewarding work I have done' - Martin Ferris on farm report
BY ROBBIE SMYTH
IN early April, Sinn Féin TD Martin Ferris will present the first comprehensive report on the future of farming and fishing in the west of Ireland to the Oireachtas All-Party Committee on Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.
Ferris told An Phoblacht the project has been “the most rewarding work I have done in the Dáil” and an antidote to the “talking shop” that Leinster House is too often for the reserved Kerry man.
The 108-page report, The Future of Farming and Fishing in the West, unwraps a comprehensive overview of the agricultural economy of the west and includes a unique survey of farmers’ opinions, interwoven with a summary of the submissions received from 28 of the key interest groups in the sector.
Crucially, there are 36 key recommendations which, if acted upon, Ferris believes could start a process of transforming rural Ireland.
An Phoblacht asked Ferris about the process of the survey and the consultations begun last summer, asking what new knowledge had been gleaned from piecing together this comprehensive study.
“I knew it was bad,” said Ferris, who described the consultations and surveys as “an educational process” but he was particularly shocked as to “how dire it is in coastal communities”.
The report is, he says, “a true reflection of the state of farming and fishing in the west from the bottom up”.
When the Sinn Féin team travelled to farmers’ marts to conduct their surveys last summer many farmers were initially suspicious or sceptical of the survey but “were always very co-operative when we explained our purpose in conducting it”.
“Some farmers are barely existing,” said Ferris who in particular highlighted the plight of those working in fishing, beef and dairy sectors.
The way the milk system operates means that dairy farmers “need 50,000 gallon quotas or more to survive”, said Ferris, while beef farmers are “vulnerable to cartels who can bring down prices”, slashing farmer income.
Touching on the potential of farmers’ markets, Ferris said:
“They offer a chance for local producers to develop, and by packaging and marketing their produce properly it gives a great opportunity to make money.”
For this to work, and for farmers to diversify more into new products, specialist breeding and organic foods, farmers needed “information with the right support and the right encouragement”.
The North Kerry TD is determined that this report won’t be ignored. He wants the agriculture, fisheries and food committee to debate and discuss the findings and for it to become part of an agreed policy going forward.
Ferris hopes the Oireachtas committee will be “inviting all the stakeholders, to get a first-hand view on what they think of the report’s recommendations”.
He will keep raising it at committee level and will question the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food Brendan Smith, when he appears before them on a timetable for an implementation plan on the report’s recommendations.
For Ferris, the key issue is the goal of keeping as many people as possible on the land. He highlighted the case uncovered in the report of one farmer who in 2007 received over €500,000 through the single farm payment scheme while in the rest of Ireland the average payment was €9,871.
Completing this report is a substantial piece of work, but talking to Martin Ferris this week it is clear that the full effort is yet to come and the Sinn Féin Agriculture and Fisheries spokesperson is like fellow west coast Oireachtas member, Senator Pearse Doherty, only warming up for the next round of making government matter on the ground, as he says himself, “from the bottom up”.
FARM AID: Martin Ferris, Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin and Pearse Doherty pushing the Oireachtas for change in agriculture and fishing
The Future of Farming and Fishing in the West
BELOW, An Phoblacht carries selected highlights of the Martin Ferris report on The Future of Farming and Fishing in the West. The report is a substantial piece of work so here are edited segments of three key sections of the report.
They are an overview of farming in the West, the state of the fishing industry and the survey on farmers’ outlook for the future.
Farming in the West of Ireland
Kerry, west Limerick, west Cork, Donegal, Clare, Galway, Roscommon, Mayo, Sligo and Leitrim make up the geographical context of this report. Between 1996 and 2006, the numbers working in farming and fishing fell by 39 per cent with a total of 18,511 people leaving the land and the sea.
One of the main motivations for this report is that, despite the claims of official policy and despite the creation of the CLAR programme, the relative decline of the west has continued.
There is also the perception that overall agricultural policy does not take account of regional disparities at an economic level. The Agri Vision 2015 Report does not refer to the relative disadvantage of the West in any of its 53 detailed recommendations.
The Single Farm Payment
As part of CAP reform, previous price supports were replaced with what is now called a Single Farm Payment (SFP). The Ferris report highlights serious inequalities in how this money is distributed.
The total of SFP paid to Irish farmers in 2007 was €1,229m, an average payment of €9,871 per farmer. 68 per cent of farmers got less than €10,000 which accounted for 28 per cent of the total.
On average, the bottom 68 per cent received a SFP of €4,057 compared to an average of €22,170 for the top 32 per cent of recipients. Indeed, the disparity in payments is even starker when one takes into account that 55,312 farmers, representing over 44 per cent of all recipients, received less than €5,000 in SFP.
Their payments accounted for just 10.5 per cent of the total. In contrast, the 2,092 (or 1.7 per cent) of farmers who received more than €50,000, accounted for €154m, an average payment of €73,500 and 12.6 per cent of the total fund.
The highest single payment received by one applicant in 2007 was €506,203!
The overall number of farms in the state has fallen from 228,000 in 1975 to 128,000 in 2006. While the number of farms under 50 hectares has fallen by over 45,000 since 1990, there are now almost 23,000 farms of 50 hectares and more compared to 18,600 in 1990.
This trend of a decrease in small farms but an increase in larger ones raises the question as to whether it is possible to retain a significant number of smaller-scale family farms.
Although the BMW region contains almost 53 per cent of all farms in the state, those farms only have 36.7 per cent of farm machines. Farmers in the West tend to be older, with 24.4 per cent aged 44, and younger in the BMW region in 2005 compared to 30 per cent for the rest of the country.
Overall employment in the agri-food sector was 171,400 in 2007 with 109,700 directly employed in agriculture. The proportion of people in the West employed in farming and fishing still remains much higher than the national average at over 7 per cent compared to 4.6 per cent for the state as a whole. Roscommon, at 10.1 per cent, had the highest proportion in this sector.
It has been forecast that farm numbers will fall to 105,000 in 2015 with just 33 per cent of them viable and approximately 22,000 farmers will cease production.
Western farmers have the poorest employment prospects due to educational attainment and skill levels. Fifty-six per cent of farmers in Galway, Roscommon and Mayo had only primary education. In Roscommon, the average for farmers of 52 per cent was far higher than 31 per cent for the population of the county as a whole. The long-term prospects, even with eventual economic recovery are for a marked decrease in the type of jobs most common to farmers in off farm employment.
Agricultural trends and opportunities
Dairying in the Western counties is in clear long-term decline with the value of output continuing to fall. Milk production in the BMW region fell from 24 per cent in 2004 to 22.4 per cent in 2006. For example, it is estimated that of the approximately 2,000 dairy farmers in Kerry at the present time that only around a half will be viable in the long-term.
The production of energy crops is a key area in which farmers are being encouraged to participate. Only 200 or less than 0.1 per cent of farmers were engaged in the production of alternative energy in 2005. That compared to an EU average of 0.4 per cent of farms engaged in energy crop production.
However, the area of willow and miscanthus grown in Ireland has increased in the last two years, from 300 hectares in 2006, to 1,100 hectares in 2007. The area under oilseed rape, used to produce liquid biofuel, increased from 4000 hectares to 6000 hectares in 2007.
Under its Wood Energy Strategy and Action Plan, the Western Development Commission forecasts a 300 per cent growth in the wood energy sector over the next ten years which would add €15m annually to the region’s income and create up to 900 full-time jobs as well as saving 620,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions every year. When fully operative it would have a demand from local farmers for 472,000 tonnes of thinnings worth €1.7m annually.
Local production and farmers’ markets
Locally-produced and marketed food is an area that has been growing as farmers attempt to increase margins by selling directly to the consumer. It reflects dissatisfaction with the falling share of the retail price accruing to producers. On the consumer side, it reflects a growing interest in healthier food.
There are 147 farmers’ markets throughout the 32 Counties with the exception of Fermanagh. Thirty-seven of the markets are in the Western counties, which is a clear indication of strong interest and potential there.
In 2005, just 0.8 per cent of agricultural land in Ireland was farmed organically, compared to an EU average of 4.3 per cent. That increased slightly in 2006 with 1,260 registered operators in Ireland of whom 1,104 were farmers/growers farming 39,665 hectares, which represents approximately 0.9 per cent of agricultural land.
The National Steering Group for the Organic Sector has set a target of 3 per cent of UAA to be either fully organic or in conversion by 2010.
Fishing in the West
The Irish fishing fleet consisted of 1,935 vessels at the end of 2007 with a total tonnage of 64,489 tonnes. Just 2,400 people were directly employed in fishing in 2007, though Bord Iascaigh Mhara estimates that over 11,000 are employed directly and indirectly, including processing and ancillary services. Processing accounted for 2,867 jobs in 2005/2006 with 77 per cent of the jobs being full-time.
In 2007, seafood exports were 158,000 tonnes valued at €360m. That represented an increase in value of 31 per cent since 1995. While seemingly impressive, that must be compared to an increase of 138 per cent in exports from Spain, 76 per cent for France, 94 per cent for Portugal and 60 per cent for Britain and the North.
The relatively poor performance of the Irish export sector is even more pronounced when it is taken into account that countries like Portugal, Greece, and Sweden have overtaken this country and that Italy, which had almost identical exports in 1995, now exports €562m annually.
Total domestic seafood sales in 2007 were €394m, meaning that 43 per cent of this was accounted for by imports. Given that a high proportion of those imports consist of products based on fish which can be caught in Irish waters, there is obviously scope for import substitution. That, however, would require a radical change in the management and structure of the Irish fisheries as it relates to quota.
Since 1993, the Irish fleet has been reduced by over a third and the intention is clearly to accelerate the rate of decommissioning. The clear intent, and one that is accepted by Irish officials, is to reduce the fleet to one operating from two or three large ports.
Aquaculture here has grown from an output of 27,000 tonnes in 1990, which was just 2.8 per cent of EU output, to 60,000 in 2005 which amounted to 4.7 per cent of output for all EU member states. That fell to 56,000 tonnes with a value of €124.6m in 2006. There are currently approximately 2,000 people employed in the sector and aquaculture accounts for around 30 per cent of the total output value of Irish seafood.
The farmers’ survey
Almost 200 farmers were interviewed in west Cork, Kerry, Galway, Mayo, Sligo and Donegal attending marts during summer and autumn 2008. Six out of ten (59 per cent) felt that their situation had worsened since the introduction of the Single Farm Payment. More than eight out of ten (82.4 per cent) of sheep farmers felt their situation was worse. A similar number (84.3 per cent) felt they were at a disadvantage compared to farmers in other regions. 37.9 per cent didn’t think they would be involved in farming within ten years.
Input costs, output prices red tape and regulations were the biggest challenges facing farmers. Jobs, decline of community and depopulation were the three biggest challenges facing rural Ireland, according to the survey asking the people to whom it matters – farming and fishing families.