Viewpoint: The lackadaisical mentality that's holding Irish farming back
Published 21/10/2015 | 02:30
Ireland's agriculture sector is a factory running at "half capacity" according to speakers at Teagasc's national soil fertility conference last week.
It's incredible to think that over 50 years after Ireland's greatest economic thinker TK Whitaker attempted to incentivise farmers to stop running down the fertility of our farms through lime subsidies, we are still at square one with 90pc of our fields at sub-optimum fertility.
But the apathy about tackling this problem can also be seen in some other key farming functions. Our abundant supply of grass is supposed to be our key competitive advantage, but how can we maximise this if only 1pc of our livestock farmers are measuring grass on a weekly basis?
Similarly, a tiny fraction of farmers bother to test their silage every year. "I've a fair idea of how it's going to feed," is the most oft heard refrain. Which frankly beggars belief given how variable the crop is, even if the same harvesting procedure is repeated ad nauseam every year.
But the lackadaisical attitude stretches way beyond grass. Why don't more farmers use more AI, that once-revolutionary technology opening up access to the best genetics anywhere in the world, which is taken for granted now.
Why aren't Teagasc snowed under with profit monitor figures from farmers keen to find out where the strengths and weaknesses are in their businesses?
Why, why, why? The answer is a simple one: as humans, we are all programmed to take the easiest route, whether that's taking the car rather than walking to the shop around the corner, or walking the farm to take soil samples. When we can get by without doing it, it tends not to be done.
To me, this presents a golden opportunity for government schemes. Even though the Beef Data and Genomics Programme has had a difficult birth, everyone agrees that the objective is a good one. Farmers will reap the dividends from the mountain of data that will be generated by the scheme for decades to come.
So why don't we create similar incentives to get farmers employing the no-brainer techniques that will make them more profitable and the industry more sustainable? All these measures could be couched in a way that shows an environmental dividend, and so qualify for funding from Europe.
Fianna Fail's Eamon Ó Cuív outlines in this week's edition how less than 10pc of farmers are benefiting from the huge range of tax-reliefs that are currently costing the exchequer millions a year. Schemes that encourage the actions outlined above would have much greater potential in terms of the numbers of beneficiaries, and return per taxpayer euro.
I'd dare say that even Mr Whitaker would approve.