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A sensitive take on land use audit is needed

Are you making the best possible use of your land?

Following calls from Macra na Feirme for a nationwide farm audit, Minister Coveney is making plans for an agricultural land use survey "to ensure that the best possible use of land is being made across the country."

It is believed that Teagasc may be called on to help carry out the audit and analyse the results. The aim is to identify strategic opportunities for Ireland Inc to achieve its Food Harvest 2020 targets.

But what is exactly is the 'best possible use' of your land? Is an acre of land better used to rear pedigree lambs or fatten weanlings for live export? Is it better to sow an acre of spring barley or graze dairy cows on an acre of grass? The answer, of course, depends where the acre is and who owns it.

The survey will throw up all manner of uses, from highly stocked intensive farms to operations where only the bare minimum in good agricultural and environmental conditions (GAEC) are being met. But how can the minister dictate to individual landowners what they should be doing with their land? Short of issuing compulsory purchase orders, he can't.

Both the Food Harvest 2020 targets and the Teagasc Sectoral Roadmaps published last week at the Ploughing Championships point to growing demand for land from dairy and tillage farmers in particular.

Expanding dairy farmers are often most vocal about their need to expand the milking platform. At recent public events, some dairy men have displayed an attitude towards their colleagues in other sectors that almost borders on sneering. This abrasive approach is unlikely to help with their attempts at land acquisition.

Land is a highly prized asset that very few farmers want to relinquish, with less than 1pc of all land in this country changing hands every year. Existing tax incentives for five-to-seven-year leases have not delivered greater land mobility but Minister Coveney has promised more tax changes in Budget 2014. It will take impressive ingenuity on his part to devise a plan that would persuade farmers with so-called 'underused' land to enter long-term leases, nevermind selling it off.

Irish Independent