Sea change in thinking is needed if ambitious plans for growth are to be met
IS THIS for real? That was my initial reaction to the recent publication of 'Food Harvest 2020', a vision for Irish Agriculture and Fisheries in 2020. Here we are with collapsing cattle and sheep herds, inability to reach our national milk quota in the last two years, record farm borrowing, lame duck banks, run-down soil fertility and being screwed by retail multiples. Yet the brains of the country, or, let me rephrase this, a committee of 30 agri leaders who produced the Food Harvest 2020 report, suggest that Ireland's agri and fish farmers can turn this runaway truck around and deliver a 33pc jump in food exports by 2020. And this is to be achieved while saddled by an ever increasing green agenda. Dream on.
But let's not be negative. Let's buy into the very worthwhile ambition of enabling Irish farming to realise its wealth creating potential. This would be good for farmers. Equally the overall economy would benefit. Also let us recognise the inherent merit in planning; failing to plan is planning to fail, and all that.
And fair dues to the Minister for Agriculture and even the Taoiseach. They have taken ownership of this ambitious plan with Minister Smith personally chairing the industry wide committee that will drive it forward.
But what's new or what will change that can bring about this desired growth and expansion? Certainly we cannot continue to drift along as before. Continuing to travel the same path and expecting a different outcome has been defined as insanity.
The main change is that the Irish economy is in dire straits and in such times we tend to return to old reliables. Agriculture may not be glamorous but it is not going to let you down like an Anglo Irish Bank or even Fás.
If this plan is to succeed, it is going to demand a sea change in the mindset and culture of the Department of Agriculture. It's back to the philosophy of "one more cow, one more sow, one more acre under the plough", rather than the priority of inspection and penalty. Farm leaders regard current Department management as the most conservative and cautious to date. Can they reinvent themselves? Can they change from inspection mode to expansion mode?
Almost every paragraph in the Food Harvest 2020 document outlines an enhanced role for Teagasc. Yet the reality is that Teagasc suffered a €10m hit in the last budget and McCarthy's Bord Snip envisages further cuts. Will this policy change in the light of the new report?
The big change in the pipeline for Irish farmers is the abolition of EU milk quota but this is not happening until 2015. However a 50pc jump in milk output is the engine that is to haul Food Harvest 2020 into the promised territory.