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20 February 2003 Edition

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Towards a survival strategy for Irish agriculture

Last week, ROISIN DE ROSA examined how the EU and Dublin government have wrought havoc with a key economic sector - agriculture. This week, she turns her attention to how can things be put right, asking first what are the objectives for agriculture, what new, and in some cases old, thinking can save family farming as a business in Ireland?



What must be done:

Retain importance of farming in the domestic economy
Ensure equality of income compared to society's average for farmers
Provide security of income to farmers
Bring down consumer food prices
Ensure the continuing economic use of our land
Foster new entrants to farming and new farming enterprise
Ensure the development and strengthening of rural communities
Halt the drift from the land by small farmers
Empower farmers to control their own futures
Engage rural communities in the equality project of republicans and promote their participation in decision making about their communities.

These objectives provide no more than a jumping off point. To evolve a policy that might successfully move towards achieving some of these objectives, there is a primary consideration - a little word - consultation.

No one knows better the faults of current government policies than farmers themselves: no one knows better the potential areas for change to bring about equality than those engaged and living in these communities, lacking as they do income, facilities, services, or any clear way to benefit from economic growth and development.

Consultation and new democratic mechanisms to make this happen might consider some of the following ideas as aspects of the problem that need to be addressed.


LAND PRICES: The prohibitive cost of land hinders both new entrants and farm expansion. High prices of land work to the benefit of the private banks and existing large farmers and agri-business. We should look at new means by which land can be made affordable and ensure that farmers no longer spend half their day working for the banker.


MACHINERY AND TAX: Many small farmers (especially in the West) still share farm equipment - which works quite efficiently. With farming increasingly mechanised and with costs often prohibitive there is often a scarcity of farm equipment. The state needs to intervene to facilitate either co-operative ownership of machinery or subsidise the costs to farmers.


COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT: We need to underwrite, with where necessary funding, the development of rural communities by engaging them in decision making on how to get access to social services, transport, and how to generate economic ventures that will work to ensure the survival of communities. Crucially, the potential for rural social economy schemes needs to be prioritised.


TEAGASC FARM ADVICE: This body needs to be greatly strengthened and its role substantially expanded to be able to work with rural communities and consult with them on their needs. It needs to become the organisation that addresses how to make farming a viable career, to ensure adequate training for new entrants, to project future demand and market opportunities, and facilitate the start up of locally based production agreements.

A body is also needed to oversee the relationship between the farm gate and the final retail shop, to decide how best to allocate the 'profit' between producer and consumer.


NICHE MARKETS: Irish agriculture has the image of being clean and green. It is crucial to our export sales, as much as to the health of the nation, that all is done to foster this image. This image opened up a great opportunity to develop organic farming, which is a sizeable and growing premium priced niche market. It is an indictment of recent government policies that they have not grasped this opportunity with both hands, and addressed supplies of organic feedstuffs, producer agreements and marketing co-ops.

Government neglect of this opportunity is criminal in the context of small farmers. The REPS scheme, with its confusions as to whether or not it is a farmer support scheme, and its bureaucratic complexity and charges to farmers, has been no substitute for what is needed: a hands on state/Teagasc led advisory, production marketing and cooperative sales scheme.


WIND POWER: One rural investment opportunity is wind power, especially on a cooperative basis. A strong argument can be made that in terms of rural development and equality the government should foster such schemes instead of handing over mega projects to multinational conglomerates. Local cooperatives offer the opportunity to develop this resource to the benefit of rural communities and national interests in reducing our reliance on fossil fuels.


COMMUNITY CO-OP MARKETING AGREEMENTS: We need to look to the development of community co-ops between producers, farmers and local processing agents, and between farmers and marketing agents. All of these developments are particularly suitable to rural low-income areas, and foster the development needed to engage the Irish people with the vision of an Ireland of equals.

It was under this principle that the 26 Counties developed its highly profitable sugar industry that was then privatised as Greencore and is now a multinational food company while the farmers who made it all possible are being driven from the land.

The Government needs to be prepared to back such projects on an ongoing basis. There is little doubt that these projects hold the potential to address the need to develop off farm income, part time employment, alongside viable agricultural production on a secure income basis.

Developing these opportunities would reinstate the co-operatives as they were first envisaged, unlike the large short-term profit driven ventures we have today. Genuine co-operatives in the ownership and control of their suppliers or shareholders, hold the further potential of direct marketing agreements with countries, or communities, outside of the EU. This holds the potential for important market development and has huge fair trade possibilities.


TOURISM: The development of tourism has largely meant the subsidisation of big hotels, and marketing on a 26-County basis. This is an absurd policy, reinforcing inequality within society and robbing communities of the resource and development potential they so much require. An agency that can foster community benefit from tourism and market the opportunities of farmhouse stop-overs, etc, promoting Ireland's rural communities and culture, has been sadly neglected.


POTENTIAL



The above represents just a few ideas among many for the development of rural Ireland, the agricultural sector, and our farming communities. These are the sort of projects we need to be thinking about, always pushing forward through consultation with those who are at the coalface of rural impoverishment. This activity at community level is both the making of policies, and the building of political strength - beyond mere electoral support.

An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1
Ireland
 

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