Margaret Donnelly: The tide may be going out on EU supports for non-viable farms
Could a move to pay unprofitable farmers to stop farming solve a number of problems?
If a viable farm is defined by Teagasc as one with an income of €19,616, then just 32pc of farms in the country are deemed viable.
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While a number of factors lead to viability, including the price farmers receive for their produce - a factor determined outside the farmgate - there must be questions asked about the future of non-viable farms.
The questions may be easy to ask but the answers probably won't be easy to take for some: for many farmers without an off-farm income, it could be time to shut up shop.
Two timely suggestions from EU Agriculture Commissioner Phil Hogan last week appear to make it clear that the tide might be going out on support for small unviable farms.
In the not too distant past, a politician suggesting that farmers should cut back on their stock numbers would have been attacked by all quarters in the sector.
However, the reaction to Hogan's suggestion to pay unviable suckler farmers to reduce their stock numbers has been notably muted.
In the past, it may have been the case that no financial incentive would have been enough to stop some people farming or even change their farming enterprises. But with the numbers year after year simply not adding up in many cattle rearing set-ups, we may be reaching a turning point in the debate.
This brings us nicely to Mr Hogan's second suggestion (see Page 3) that older farmers could be paid to transfer land to young farmers.
For any farm to have a future, there must be a succession plan in place, and maybe the way to make it happen is to finance it.
Remember the Early Retirement Scheme? Introduced in the early 1990s, it was aimed at encouraging older farmers to step aside and rent or sell their farms to a younger generation.
At the time, it was estimated that farmers over 65 years of age controlled close to 20pc of the land in Ireland, and thanks to the scheme, over 9,000 farmers stepped aside.
However, it didn't solve the problem that very few of our farmers are young. Low incomes and access to land are two key issues for the sector.
So any scheme or factor that leads to long-term structural change in the age profile of farmers should be welcomed.
Two questions remain for policy-makers: what is the future of the 'family farm'? And how can it be supported to remain viable?
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