We must reap the resources of private farm consultants to meet the Food Harvest targets
A new and improved format was tried for this year's Agricultural Science Association (ASA) annual conference, held recently in Tullow. In each session, rather than having the speakers rattling on in their own comfort zones, a moderator directed the topics and issues for the speaker panels.
Only Farm Minister Brendan Smith escaped this inquisitorial approach. It was no coincidence that his paper was the most boring part of the day, even if it carried important content.
The final session on the future of farm advisory services was ably led by dairy farmer/journalist Matt O'Keeffe.
Out of this, one statistic jumped at me -- that Teagasc advisers are now far outnumbered in Ireland by private farm consultants. And with Teagasc numbers continuing to shrink, the ratio could soon be two to one.
This has interesting implications for the future of farm extension and farm advisory in Ireland. In the recent Food Harvest 2020 report, almost every paragraph envisaged an extra activity for Teagasc. Given the respective numbers on the ground, maybe the Food Harvest 2020 promoters should be talking with the private farm consultants as well as Teagasc if they want targets achieved.
In reality, while there was input from 32 organisations, including BirdWatch Ireland, into the 2020 report, there was no input from private consultants, who claim to have 44,000 farmer clients on their books.
At the ASA event, they discussed farmer response to advice as measured by the adoption of new technology and the achievement of national targets. Why is there not a faster take up of the professional guidance on offer to Irish farmers?
ASA panel member Adrian van Bysterveldt came to Teagasc as a grass expert from New Zealand. He said that even in New Zealand, 30pc of farmers remained outside the influence of advisers. Such non-participants were described as laggards by another contributor.