THE SLOW recovery in Irish farm incomes has continued in 2004, according to first estimates released by the Central Statistics Office.

Latest data points to a 2.3% increase in the value of agricultural goods to €4.94bn (£3.4bn), while operating surplus before rent and finance has risen 1.3% to €2.18bn (1.5bn).

“Increases in the output value of livestock (up 4.9%) were largely offset by a decrease in the output value of marketable crops (down 7.9%) and increases in input costs (up 1.9%),” said a CSO statement, explaining the generally static income picture.

There was little change in the value of milk or net subsidies, which are estimated at €1.47bn (£1bn), equivalent to 67% of the operating surplus.

But the Irish Farmers’ Association suggested these figures might slightly underestimate the improvement in farm incomes. “It must be taken into account that there was an 80% advance payment in suckler cow and beef special premiums in 2003, but this reverted to a 60% this year,” it said.

IFA president John Dillon said the improvement in cattle prices of almost 10% was the single most important positive factor in 2004. But it was also encouraging that dairy companies had so far refrained from cutting milk prices, despite the first stage of EU support price cuts from July.

“The main black spots in 2004 were the very low prices for cereals, down by 11%, low potato prices and higher prices for feedstuffs and energy,” said Mr Dillon.

Despite the drop in the livestock advance from 80% to 60%, net subsidies to farmers were little changed in 2004, due to the arrival of the dairy premium.

“Farmers will be in a new situation in 2005 when decoupling is introduced,” said Mr Dillon. “The key issues will be the relativity between market returns and production costs, and the details of cross-compliance, which must not undermine the objective of freedom to farm.”

Canadian farmers have seen improved cumulative cash receipts for the first nine months of the year, according to Statistics Canada – the first such increase for three years. Total receipts for the period rose 6.4% to $26bn (£11.8bn), mainly because of higher crop revenues.