An EU farm meeting at Milford has heard calls for a subsidy for those living in rural areas because these people are the custodians of the countryside.
And it was claimed the Government is getting a very good deal from those remaining in rural Ireland because they are protecting and maintaining these structures for future generations.
The EU farm meeting in Milford was organised by Sinn Fein’s Matt Carthy MEP and attracted an international panel of speakers from peripheral locations across Europe.
And top of the agenda was a blueprint for the future as the next review of the CAP Programme gets under way in the New Year.
Irish farming is at a critical crossroads and this was highlighted recently in this paper with the revelation that farm incomes have fallen by 65% over these past twenty years. Things are not about to improve any time soon according to the main body of opinion at the meeting.
In his address to the delegates, Malcolm Thompson Director of the ICSA said that 95% of small farmers are working for free because their enterprises are no longer economic.
He told the Tirconaill Tribune: “For 1.3 billion Euros, the EU can exercise control over every aspect of our farming, our finances, and even our farms. In return agriculture contributes nine billion Euros to our economy. 95% of farmers along the western seaboard work for free, we are not paid for our labour, we exist on the pittance of the single farm payment, sponging on our wives or by reliance on social welfare benefit.
Continuing his discourse Mr. Thompson said: “The burning question must be… is commercial farming sustainable in the less favoured areas? The answer is simple. As things stand we cannot compete commercially with those whose food product is on their doorstep available at first cost, whose market is on their doorstep with no necessary transport costs. Everything we buy, feed, fuel and fertiliser needs to be imported into this island. We can only consume 10% of our production. That leaves 90% which, again has to be transported out of Ireland, across the sea and the land of Europe in order to reach our target market.
In short, without support our farms are not commercially sustainable. What is the answer?
Europe maintains that they support the concept of the family farm. They support the concept of people living in rural communities rather than congregating in large urban settlements with all the associated problems. If this is true then we need a ‘rural livers’ payment which will be paid to all farmers who maintain a certain degree of agricultural production.
We need regional recognition of our product, which identifies our product, sits unique nature, its flavour and its provenance, protected by European law, a product which cannot be replicated elsewhere and a product which commands a price reflective of its uniqueness.”
80% of CAP going to 20% of producers
The entire issue of the CAP payments distribution system was clearly emphasised by Henry O’Donnell from the Irish Natura and Hill Farming Association (INHFA). He said the distribution of money within CAP was unfair. He drew attention to agri-environment schemes in Pillar 2 where he said that hill and commonage farmers had difficulty getting access to schemes such as GLAS.
O’Donnell claimed that Areas of Natural Constraint (ANC) payments should have been better targeted to producers that farmed in the most disadvantaged areas and that there currently was a small payment being distributed to a wide range of producers farming in a range of areas.
Highlighting the funding distribution, Mr. O’Donnell said that 80% of CAP payments goes to the 20% of those responsible for 27% of production and that was a fact of EU funding distribution, he added.
Falling farm incomes was described as the biggest challenge facing farmers in peripheral areas by Bert Stewart from the Irish Farmers’ Association. Mr. Stewart said the average farm income across Ireland in 2014 was €26,000 but this was substantially lower than the average industrial salary of €36,000.
He said that income figures for 2015 will be reduced further due to the low prices being received for many farm commodities across sectors currently. He said that, because of this, there was often a need for off-farm income in farm families in peripheral areas and highlighted the importance of direct payments from the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) to farmers to subsidise farm incomes.
Deputy Padraig MacLochlainn said the Irish family farm model is one to be cherished but policy changes in the EU and nationally have led us to believe that we are facing into a sector that nurtures industrial large scale farming. This places pressures on small farms unable to compete, potentially pushing many out of the sector. The future of rural Ireland depends on a strong network of family farms.
“The development of a thriving agriculture sector needs farmers- farmers who are confident and supported in their work both by central government and by Europe.
In peripheral areas like Donegal, communities frequently feel at a loss as to how to halt the decline we’ve witnessed over the last decades. Many rural communities feel their voices are not being heard in the corridors of power.
“Over recent decades, thousands of farmers have been forced off the land.
There is a need for fundamental change in policies and practices in relation to the West and North West of Ireland. There needs to be a change of direction – this conference aims to contribute to that change by not only outlining the challenging nature of peripheral farming and rural development in peripheral areas but also assess ways to support and sustain them.
“Peripheral can mean many things from mountainous and areas of natural constraint to regions that have been marginalised by underinvestment and neglect.
“In Donegal we face challenges associated with the physical landscape as well as from discriminatory government policy which continues to prioritise the east coast,” concluded Deputy MacLochlainn.