Agriculture has provided us with food and income for thousands of years and it’s a vital part of who we are. Before Ireland became a member of the European Union the country was almost totally economically dependent on farming but we now have a more diverse, open economy that’s one of the fastest growing in the Eurozone.
However, the farming sector is still a vital cog in Ireland’s economic wheel and the agri-food sector employs 7.9% of the working population.
Like their ancestors, modern Irish farmers face numerous challenges but many of today’s problems can’t be solved locally. Farming is now facing real threats from climate change, rising energy costs, food security and rural decline, as well as uncertainty surrounding Brexit.
Thankfully, being a Member State of the European Union means Irish farmers don’t have to face these issues alone and can co-ordinate with the other EU nations through the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) to find solutions to global, as well as local, issues.
The CAP was first introduced in Europe over 50 years ago and it has undergone several changes over the past five decades as it continues to evolve to meet new challenges.
It provides vital direct income support to farmers as well as incentives for them to produce high quality food and seek new development opportunities, such as renewable ‘green’ energy sources, to help protect our planet from climate change.
But the CAP isn’t just about farming and farmers. It also provides a partnership between agriculture and society, and its benefits reach beyond the farmyard to our communities, markets and kitchen tables.
The CAP was most recently reformed in 2014 after the Irish Presidency of the Council of the European Union, and the European Commission has already presented proposals for how the CAP will work beyond 2020.
The proposals follow a major consultation held in 2017 on modernising and simplifying the CAP. The consultation attracted almost 323,000 submissions from a wide range of stakeholders, including farmers and organisations with an interest in agriculture.
It will include measures to protect the environment as well as actions to help tackle climate change in tandem with other EU policies.
Income support for farmers and rural communities will remain an essential part of the CAP with priority given to small and medium-sized farms as well as young farmers.
Each Member States will draw up a CAP strategic plan detailing the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats in its agriculture sector.
These strategic plans will also outline the individual needs of Member States and set targets for achieving the CAP objectives. The plans need to be approved by the Commission, which will then monitor progress and see if adjustments need to be made.
The CAP of the future will encourage increased investment in research and innovation and make it easier for farmers and rural communities to benefit from it.
But the future has some uncertainties and the decision of the UK to withdraw from the EU has caused concern amongst the agriculture sector, particularly in Ireland.
However, work to prepare for Brexit is ongoing and the Commission remains focused on protecting the agriculture and farming interests of EU citizens in all circumstances.
It’s his responsibility to ensure that EU agricultural and rural development policies promote growth, investment and new jobs. Commissioner Hogan’s job is to act in the interests of the European Union as a whole. All commissioners are obliged to be independent so they don’t take instruction from national governments.
The CAP is not only about looking forward; it’s also designed to protect what we already have. Preservation of Ireland’s famously beautiful countryside is assisted through the CAP’s Rural Development Programmes.
The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine is the Managing Authority for Ireland’s Rural Development Programme (RDP).
It’s co-funded by the EU’s European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development (EAFRD) and the national exchequer and is designed to improve the quality of life and economic prospects of people living in rural areas.
Ireland leads other Member States in terms of its implementation of the RDP and by June 2018 had the second highest rate of drawdown of EU funds among all Member States.
The average EU financial rate for drawing down of funds was 33% but Ireland had an execution rate of 53% and was one of only two countries with over 50% of funds drawn down.
The entire budget allocation of Ireland’s RDP for 2014-2020 is €4 billion, with almost €2.2 billion of this coming from EU funds.
A central priority of the Irish RDP is restoring, preserving and enhancing ecosystems related to agriculture and forestry.
RDP support will make around 111,600 training places available for Irish farmers to increase their knowledge and skills.
Almost 10% of Irish agricultural holdings will be restructured and modernised with support from the RDP and another 3% of holdings will benefit from support specifically targeted at young farmers.
LEADER, which delivers development in local rural communities, is also providing around €250 million in grant aid to rural communities and businesses for the 2014-2020 period.
The LEADER Programme is administered by Local Action Groups (LAGs), which are partnerships of both public and private bodies that are responsible for selecting and approving projects in their respective areas.
The overall programme funding in Ireland is allocated to 28 sub-regional areas based on administrative or county boundaries.
Agriculture in Ireland is also supported through the European Union’s Horizon 2020 programme for research and innovation.
Horizon is providing funding to Irish researchers in the agriculture and agri-foods sectors, helping them to develop solutions that’ll make farming sustainable for future generations and the food chain safer and more secure for consumers.
The EU has also created the European Innovation Partnership for Agricultural Productivity and Sustainability (EIP-AGRI) to ensure that research responds to ground-level needs of farmers and foresters.
The European Commission and the European Investment Bank (EIB) have also launched a €1 billion loans package specifically targeting young farmers.
The loan programme is part of a joint ‘Young Farmers' initiative' and it will make it easier for young farmers to access loans with lower interest rates and longer repayment periods.
- Ireland covers an area of 6.9 million hectares, of which 4.5 million hectares is used for agriculture and a further 730,000 hectares for forestry.
- There are 137,500 farms in Ireland – the vast majority of which are family owned - and the average size is 32.4 hectares.
- Employment in the agri-food sector accounted for 173,800 jobs, 7.9% of total employment, on average in 2017, according to the CSO Labour Force Survey.
- The Central Statistics Office’s Final Estimate on Output, Input and Income in Agriculture for 2017 showed an increase of 14% in the value of goods output. The highest value increase across commodities was in milk, which increased by 45% in value terms from €1.8 to €2.6 billion.
- The National Farm Survey for 2017 indicated average family farm income for full time farms was €31,412 in 2017, an increase of 32% on 2016, although this varied widely depending on farm type.
- More than half (52.7%) of all Irish farms are located in the Border, Midland and Western (BMW) region. However, farms in the Southern and Eastern (SE) region are 41.3% larger than those in the BMW region.
- Agriculture typically has an ageing workforce. In 2016, around a quarter of farm holders in Ireland were aged 65 years and over. Just 5% of farmers were aged less than 35 years.
- The combined area under cereals (wheat, oats and barley) in 2017 was 271,000 hectares compared to 1,017,000 hectares in 1847. In 1847, oats accounted for 61% of the area of cereals grown. However, by 2017 this had fallen to almost 9% and instead, barley made up 66%.
- European Commission Directorate-General for Agriculture and Rural Development
- Irish Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine
- Common Agricultural Policy Timeline
- Teagasc - Ireland's Agriculture and Food Development Authority
- Factsheet: The CAP in your country - Ireland
- Commissioner Phil Hogan: Building the Future of EU Food & Farming