Farm Ireland

Wednesday 13 December 2017

'stop this pretence'

IRL boss seeks greater focus on rural development

Proinsias de Burca

The Americans love to remind Europe that it is a disparate place replete with kingdoms, principalities and the odd republic. "So, who do I call when I want to call Europe?" they ask.

The same can be said of rural Ireland, a place replete with a variety of representative organisations all with different mandates and distinct voices. As a result, the Government, state agencies and the national media are often puzzled as to who they should call when they want to talk to rural Ireland.

In recent years, Irish Rural Link (IRL), led by CEO Seamus Boland, has been filling that space. He believes IRL is manning that telephone and providing the voice that answers when you call rural Ireland.

IRL is a network formed out of a huge variety of rural organisations. Based in Moate in Co Westmeath, the network is a focus for rural policy promotion, rural advocacy, lobbying, campaigning and information exchange. The organisation also has a seat at the Social Partnership table.

Seamus Boland is the quintessential rural leader, born and reared on a smallholding in Ballycumber, Co Offaly. He still farms the place on a part-time basis. Like many of his generation, Macra was his university, and he recently formalised that early third-level education with a degree in rural development from NUI Maynooth.

Most of his career has been spent in the community and voluntary sector working in Traveller training, youth work and latterly in rural development and campaigning.

Talking to Seamus about rural issues is like opening a high-pressure tap: so much gushes forth, you struggle to contain it.

"Rural development has to be about sustainability, about sustaining human beings who want to live in the place they call home," Seamus says.

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"This is what Irish Rural Link is about. And sustainability isn't some wishy-washy concept dreamed up late at night at partnership talks in Dublin Castle. It means that I, as a rural person, have a choice to stay and live and work in my local area with my community in a way that will sustain me and my family into the future. It means that collectively we are committed to ensuring that rural people will have access to jobs, will have decent infrastructure, decent schools and services."

Seamus believes that agriculture continues to be the engine for rural development. However, he is scathing in his analysis of the current state of the industry.

"If there was a strategic plan for agriculture in Ireland over the past 10 years and we were to sit down to review it, what do we see? Milk prices that are static or in reverse; the same goes for beef, sheep and tillage prices. We have lost our sugar industry and all that goes with it. This is a cursory review; an in-depth review would be devastating."

Seamus goes on to point out that a sizeable proportion of Irish agriculture is based on smallholdings and that such farm units need three income streams; one from farming, one from an off-farm job and one from subsidies.

"Is that a sustainable structure for agriculture?" he asks. "If you have a tradesman, a hairdresser and a farmer living on the same road and all working and you do the sums, they will show that the tradesman and the hairdresser are subsidising the farmer; that is unsustainable."

Seamus believes that the chief culprit in relation to the decline in Irish and European agriculture is the national and EU policy of cheap food.

"This policy, driven by Europe, has left us in the anomalous situation where farmers are paid to maintain the environment while pretending to produce food. The sheer hypocrisy of this is never questioned."

Seamus believes that issues and choices facing policy makers are clear:

  • Do they want the farmers to produce food? If they do, then this means trebling current prices.
  • If they want cheap food, then our farmers cannot produce it, so stop the pretence and pay them to maintain the environment by means of a super-REPS programme.
  • If they want to produce cheap food, then the number of farmers must fall sharply and the scale of farm holdings will have to massively increase.

The last option is the one favoured by the so-called "Irish agristocracy'', Seamus claims. "These people have access to big money, political influence, and a direct line into the agri media," he says.

Seamus warns that embracing the 'factory farm' option has huge implications for rural communities and the wider public. Such implications include depopulation, environmental destruction and weaker food security.

He contends that challenging the power and influence of the big farmer lobby is the first step on the way to formulating a real rural development policy.

"We need to look at rural development in its entirety, so we need to invest in its entirety. This means investing in rural business as well as farming.

"If you look at the current Rural Development Programme, only 5pc of it is dedicated to Leader-type projects, while 95pc is going to support the pretence of food production," he argues.

"Farmers need to be encouraged to view their farm-holding as one element in a broader menu of revenue-generating possibilities.

"Outside the farm gate, rural development policy needs to have strategies in place for maximising the possibilities of each region and each locality.

"In some places, this may mean investing in the services sector, in others tourism, in others crafts and, in others, niche foods and the like. All areas will need investment in the social sector and in social services, such as home-help provision.

"This means that the farm income is one stream of income among others and it puts realistic expectations on the farmer and the land."

According to Seamus, this will not happen by accident.

"Real rural development has to be region specific and even area specific. In this regard, the education system has a key role to play. The VECs, third-level colleges and particularly the Institutes of Technology," Seamus says.

"These should offer courses and degrees along with research and development that are appropriate to the particular needs and potential of the area in which they are located."

Seamus is confident that agriculture will remain the engine of rural development. However, he maintains that its full value will only be realised if the current food production "pretence" is challenged and support is given to a broad menu of options based on the land and the locality.

Irish Independent