Farm Ireland

Monday 11 December 2017

Pioneering Professor setting his sights on a brighter future

Teagasc director Gerry Boyle plots path to ensure industry's best interests kept to fore

Pictured at the launch of a new report - Irish Consumer and Industry Acceptance of Novel Food Technolgies, produced by Teagasc, UCC and DIT, were Teagasc Director, Professor Gerry Boyle, Maeve Henchion, Andre Brodborb, and Sinead McCarthy, Teagasc
Pictured at the launch of a new report - Irish Consumer and Industry Acceptance of Novel Food Technolgies, produced by Teagasc, UCC and DIT, were Teagasc Director, Professor Gerry Boyle, Maeve Henchion, Andre Brodborb, and Sinead McCarthy, Teagasc

Martin Ryan

Some of the earliest seeds of instruction in farming were sown in a hillside village in North Tipperary in the late 1930s.

The young agricultural instructor, who brought local farmers together in the cold parish hall at Rearcross on the dark winter nights, was a Wexford man on his first posting called Tom Walsh.

He cycled eight miles from his boardings at Newport to teach better farming methods one night each week at one of the earliest night 'schools' on farming in the country.

A few years later, Dr Tom Walsh became the first director of the original precursor to Teagasc, An Foras Taluntais, where he remained until retirement in 1983.


The historical significance of Rearcross has a nice symmetry with the fact that the second and third generation of those early students are now the neighbours of the current director of Teagasc, Prof Gerry Boyle.

Outside of his role as Teagasc boss he enjoys nothing better than meeting and chatting to these farming neighbours in the quieter moments of the weekend.

The Borrisoleigh native claims that the move from his prior position as Head of the Department of Economics at Maynooth brought him closer to the occupation that he yearned for since his youth.

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"We were not farming at home, but all of our neighbours were and I used to work with them. I was always interested in agriculture and during the summer holidays I did my share of thinning of turnips and beet. I came to be fairly good with a hoe, and I spent a whole summer with a dairy farmer who became temporarily incapacitated and I enjoyed that immensely, looking after the cows," he admitted over a coffee.

"Even when I went on to college to study economics, every time I had to do an essay I choose an agricultural theme. The cattle crisis in 1974 had a huge influence on me. I was only a teenager in secondary school, but I remember it was the talk of the country. I saw farmers having to give away calves because there was no market for them, and I felt very strongly that there had to be a better way for farmers," he says.

This passion fed into his undergraduate thesis on predicting the next cycle in beef. His Master's also dwelled on agriculture.

His first posting was a contract job with An Foras Taluntais under Brendan Kearney to evaluate the future for nitrogen use. A permanent post at the Economics Unit of the Central Bank followed before a permanent position with An Foras Taluntais. Shortly after the mid 1980s he joined NUI Maynooth and choose agricultural productivity for his PhD.

"As an economist I was always intrigued by the intricacies of the production systems in farming. It always fascinated me, especially in beef which is so hard to understand because of the decision making involved for farmers," he says.

"The margins in beef are very low all over the world and it takes a certain type of person with a good endowment of land to even survive in beef long term.

"The vast majority are not going to be able to do very much themselves to improve their income. They are completely beholden to the market, especially at the small scale which most of them are. Only a small percentage can over time achieve a small improvement inside the farm gate," he says.

But Prof Boyle's thoughts on agriculture are not confined solely to beef. Back in the early 1980s he accurately predicted that milk quota would become a tradeable asset. His logic was that some farmers would produce milk more efficiently than others, creating demand for milk quota. It would become more profitable for others to lease or sell their quota than to produce it.

He now believes that a swing towards dairy farming from beef is inevitable after the lifting of quota restrictions, but the scale of investment required will temper the extent of change.

Indeed, he believes that some will suffer such a culture shock and end up exiting again, unable to cope with the discipline required for dairy farming.

Teagasc will also undergo a lot of change within the next decade. Already the state body is becoming more involved with the private sector.

"We are going to have to work much closer with the private sector," he says.

"We have now decided to develop more outreach services. Our unique pool of research knowledge has to be made available to farmers as well as the private entities such as vets, co-ops, and private consultants.

"In recent years we are also getting a lot more calls from solicitors and accountants. I think we will continue to have a core activity centred around discussion groups, but I can see us much more linked into the private sector providing information corridors. As a state body whether we influence development on farm directly or indirectly is immaterial," he says.

"I think there is going to be an explosion in social media. That area is totally under-developed. They are already far more advanced in the use of ICT and social media for knowledge transfer in places like Pakistan, India and parts of Africa than we are. We have to take our cue from that," he says.

"In one project they have developed over 100 plant clinics. Farmers use mobile phones to send a picture and email to the clinic where they will diagnose any solution.

"We have not grappled yet with the potential. We are only scratching the surface. We could be using information in a much more sophisticated way."

Teagasc has now teamed up with the Smurfit School in UCD to provide a service for farm families in the whole area of strategic planning for the future for the farmer and his family.


The director also has strong views on the other issue occupying people's minds in relation to the future of Irish agriculture – squaring our greenhouse gas emissions with the targets laid out in Food Harvest 2020.

Prof Boyle believes that apparent contradiction between increased production and reduced emissions is an issue that Ireland will succeed in addressing.

"On one hand we have a massive global food security problem. We still have a billion people going hungry every night. It makes sense to produce food in the most efficient countries.

"Ireland is one of the most efficient in the world, in terms of both costs and the amount of carbon per unit of food produced. The total cap on emissions is not practical, but there is a shift taking place in the dialogue where people are opening up to the idea that we should be allowed to produce food which is required globally.

"It would be nonsensical not to. We should also be allowed offset agricultural emissions with forestry. So in Teagasc, we are still working on the basis that there will be a reduction in carbon emissions, even if we reach the Food Harvest 2020 targets," he says.

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