Brexit measures and help for the most vulnerable farmers look to be in sight
It is farmers working some of the most marginal and disadvantaged land in the country that have been put top of the wishlist for this year’s Budget.
For once, all of the myriad farm organisations seem to be speaking as one as they have demanded the €25m promised in the Programme for Government be delivered to the Areas of Natural Constraint Scheme (ANC), formerly known as the disadvantaged areas scheme.
It was described as an easy target for swingeing cuts in 2008 when expenditure was slashed from €257m to €220m. Then a second cut led to it dropping to €195m.
It affected some of the most vulnerable in the farming community and a reversal has already been long promised.
However, the big ‘B’ word in the farming sector has been Brexit. The rollercoaster volatility in the sterling and euro exchange rate has seen millions of euro wiped off of our valuable agri-trade with our nearest neighbours.
The level of dependence on certain industries, including mushrooms, has seen producers go to the wall, with the UK also taking up to 50pc of our valuable beef exports, worth over €1bn last year.
The Government has signalled this Budget will be framed with measures to help combat Brexit in mind, after an extra €6.7m in funding was recently diverted to Bord Bia to help target market diversification.
Both the Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA) and the Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers’ Association (ICMSA) have suggested variations on a farm deposit scheme that would allow farmers to put money in a deposit scheme in ‘good’ years and draw it down in ‘bad’ years to smooth-out their incomes.
Farming remains a low-income sector, with the Teagasc figures for 2016 showing the average farm income was just over €24,000. However, incomes on livestock and sheep farms fall significantly below this.
Already the difficulties accessing finance and the high demand for last year’s government-supported low-cost loans for farms, designed to fund working capital and on-farm investment, has been highlighted. At the Ploughing, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar confirmed measures to provide easier access to finance was under consideration for the Budget.
However, the caveat is that last year’s funding for the low-cost loan scheme was propped up by €11m of EU funding.
The agricultural budget for 2017 increased from €1.35bn to €1.47bn. However, according to the Comptroller and Auditor General report, the department surrendered a surplus of €231m to the Exchequer as the full budget was not used in some schemes such as the Targeted Agricultural Modernisation Scheme (TAMS).
And the Department of Agriculture will be competing with other high priority departments this year, as the lack of housing has not been far from the headlines since the start of the year. Equally, the Department of Health will be raising its hand as the HSE has highlighted a €100m hospital overspend.
Already the commitments from the Department of Agriculture and Minister Michael Creed (inset) under the Rural Development Programme are significant.
However, spending on the schemes such as the environmental programme GLAS and the TAMS scheme that has helped boost a rural building trade are ramping up with the department now spending nearly €1m a week.
The department has already committed to a €300m spend on the Beef Data Genomics Programme (BDGP) to help boost incomes of struggling suckler farmers.
Changes to the Fair Deal nursing home scheme have already been flagged for farm families, with a three-year cap on annual contributions now set to be extended to farmland and business premises. It means the financial burden facing farm families and business owners will be reduced.
However, with sterling volatility a constant reality it is the measures to help tackle Brexit that will be watched by the agri-food and drink industry – with €11bn of yearly exports at play.
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