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Seeking some assurance

A sheep in a field
UPHILL STRUGGLE There are growing fears about the viability of the sheep farming industry. Pic: Keith Heneghan/Phocus

On the doorsteps

Seeking some assurance

The future of farming
Anton McNulty

AS SPRING emerges from the shadow of winter and a stretch comes in the evening, the farmers of Mayo will be starting preparations for the long summer ahead. Fertiliser will have to be ordered, slurry tanks emptied and the sheep farmers will be getting ready for the lambing season. After the long, dark, laborious winter, new life will be unveiled across the countryside, but farmers the length and breadth of the county will be asking themselves: is there a life left in farming?
Along with the amount of red tape and bureaucracy they have to deal with, there is also concern among farmers about the viability of their livelihood over the next five to ten years. With proposed water meter charges scheduled to be introduced, the nitrates directive, and new lactose regulations in dairy farming, politicians knocking on farm yard doors will have their work cut out reassuring farmers that they have a sustainable future.
Added to those concerns, a CSO publication last week revealed that income from agriculture in 2006 was down 14.2 per cent on 2005. Some believe farming is now nothing more than an ‘expensive hobby’ with many having to subsidise their farm salary with another job. Once among the most prominent occupations in the county, farming is now in the minority with young people opting for the nine to five job with a pay cheque at the end of the week rather than the long unsocial hours of life on the farm.
Critics will point to the millions of euros which farmers receive from Europe in the post each year and to a degree they have a point. There is the REPS scheme, single farm payments and area aid payments which farmers receive from Brussels. However, farmers continually point out that the expenses involved in modern farming methods leave very little at the end of the year. The Government and the farming unions have agreed a payment structure for the next seven years but the future facing farmers after the CAP reforms take place in 2013 is uncertain.
One young man who has chosen to continue to farm is Neil Gallagher, a cattle and sheep farmer on Achill Island. Neil, who is in his mid-20s and acts as Chairman of the Achill branch of the IFA, feels from talking to other young farmers there is an interest to continue farming but not as a sole income. He is involved in the REPS scheme and stressed without the 17 percent increase which is due in stage four of the scheme, farming would not be viable.
For Neil and many farmers in the west of the county the future of sheep farming is at a critical stage. The industry is declining fast and prices in butchers’ windows are not reflecting what farmers are being paid and are currently seeking €15 a head. Neil knows they are not going to get the prices they got in the 1990’s but feels if the price could be stabilised and subsidies continue, farming in Mayo will continue to have a future.
“It is hard to make a living and you need a job besides. The number of sheep farmers has halved in Achill in the last ten years. REPS 4 has brought an increase of 17 per cent which is badly needed, it keeps the interest there. In some ways farmers are getting more money now through REPS payment and single farm payments but if they went you could definitely not survive with the cost of living as it is today and the financial costs in running a farm.”
Neil also believes that the mountain of paperwork that stacks up in front of the ordinary farmer is intimidating and is driving older people from the land.
“REPS has been a major improvement but the farm inspections for the single farm payments are a joke at the moment. There is a 60 odd page book with 1,450 boxes to be ticked. The inspectors come to the farm and it can be a bit intimidating for older farmers. Many of them  are saying ‘to hell with it, it is not worth it’. The only farmers who are going to survive are the ones who will be in it for the long haul,” adds Neil.
Those in for the long haul want to have a positive outlook. They want to have a viable and sustainable livelihood and in the coming weeks, in this mostly rural constituency, they will be seeking assurances from the parties that they are very much part of their plans.

In response
Frank Chambers FF
“People who wish to farm will for the first time ever will be able to farm with a guaranteed income for the next seven years. It is guaranteed from the national exchequer and from Europe but will be 70 per cent paid for by the national exchequer. That covers a whole range of farm grants and payments and the totality of that is €7 billion. I believe the price of milk should stabilise because the demand is getting greater and there is no question about it there is a demand for Irish beef and last year the live exports trade was extremely strong. The income for farming is still there but there is also a greater choice for young people who want to go into farming. It is the way the economic trends are changing but the support and commitments to farming will be there and guaranteed for the next seven years.”

John O’Mahony FG
“From talking to farmers, it’s clear that the small farms are under pressure because the incomes are not enough to sustain them. I was talking to a dairy farmer who told me he has no option but to take a part-time job because his profit last year was just €18,000. That is not sufficient and is nowhere near the average industrial wage. Smaller farmers sustained life in rural Ireland for many decades but now that way of life is under serious threat. It is hugely important that small farmers are supported and they are allowed to keep their farms ticking over. Whether it through putting alternative products in place or offering incentives for young people to take up farming, something needs to be done to keep farming alive in the west of Ireland.”