SOME 13,000 farmers will take an income hit of nearly €6,000 each next year due to the decision not to operate a new environmental farming scheme next year.
As the Ploughing Championships opened in Ratheniska, Co Laois, Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney confirmed yesterday there would be no new agri-environmental scheme in 2014 to cater for the 13,000 farmers leaving the Rural Environment Protection Scheme (REPS) in coming weeks. A massive crowd of 81,000 people attended yesterday, up 56pc on the 52,000 who attended last year's opening day in New Ross, Co Wexford.
The Irish Farmers Association (IFA) warned that this would cut many low-earning farmers' incomes in half even though many worked in conservation zones with stringent environmental restrictions.
Average earnings from the scheme were €5,800 a year for eco-friendly measures such as planting hedgerows or keeping a lower number of animals.
Mr Coveney acknowledged that many farmers currently coming out of REPS relied on those payments for "a significant part of their income".
He said that a comprehensive new EU environmental scheme would be put in place from 2015 as part of reforms of the Common Agricultural Policy.
"Farmers will get real security from that in terms of knowing what a comprehensive environmental scheme looks like for the next five years as opposed to trying to put a makeshift scheme in place for next week," he said.
IFA rural chairman Flor McCarthy demanded a "lifeline" for the 13,000 farmers exiting REPS to extend the scheme for another year.
While there is another environmental scheme called AEOS (Agri Environment Options Scheme) in place for 20,000 farmers, Mr Coveney's decision means no new applicants will be able to join it or any similar scheme next year.
AEOS provides lower payments averaging €3,200 each per year.
The IFA said around 3,500 farmers had been refused access to this scheme this year as funding was capped and it should at least be opened to them.
President Michael D Higgins said that helping young farmers to get land was the greatest challenge facing modern agriculture.
Speaking at the official opening of the Ploughing Championships, he said Irish farming had changed profoundly since it was last held in Ratheniska in 1943 with many new challenges. "Enabling young farmers to access the land they need to make a living in agriculture is the greatest of all of these challenges," he said.
"The current age structure of Ireland's farming population is a big issue. Only six per cent of Irish farmers are under the age of 35."
By contrast, 51pc of farmers were over 55 and and nearly a third were over 65 – but only a tiny fraction of land changed hands each year.
"Too many farmers have no designated person to whom they plan to transfer the farm," Mr Higgins said. "Yet at the same time, many young farmers want to take up farming and they are more and better and fully qualified to do so, but often they cannot find land. Very little farmland is sold in Ireland in any given year – less than 0.5 per cent."
Mr Coveney said he was committed to introducing innovative measures in the budget on farm taxation and also to support farmers in vulnerable sectors.
He has to secure savings of €53m in his department in the budget, with €28m to be cut from current spending.
Traffic moved very well to the ploughing championships and there will be no changes necessary today, said Garda Superintendant Yvonne Lundon.
"It moved really smoothly. Everything kept moving and there were no hold-ups," she said.
The site was very well positioned at the centre of a number of major road junctions, she said, paying tribute to the gardai who were on duty since 5.30am and the public for heeding their directions to keep the huge crowds moving.