18 September 1998

Exporting essential for small population

AS Ireland prepares for one of Europes largest outdoor agricultural shows – which annually supports the countrys national ploughing championships – it is timely to adopt a greater understanding of just how the Irish agricultural industry is structured, writes Andy Collings.

In raw statistics, the area used for agricultural production in Ireland amounts to some 4.35m ha. Of this, only 9.5% is used for arable cropping, 80.5% is grassland with the remaining area isdescribed as rough grazing – hill and mountain land.

With grass dominating the scene, it will be no surprise to learn that beef and milk production account for 68% of the total value of agricultural output. Arable cropping accounts for 12.4%, pig and poultry meat 11.2% and sheepmeat, 5.5%.

In terms of farm size, smaller rather than larger is the norm. The country has 149,000 farms which average about 29ha (72 acres) – in the more fertile areas of Leinster and Munster, farms tend to be above this size but farms over 100ha (250 acres) are in the minority with only just over 4000 units recorded.

Understandably, smaller units – particularly in areas deemed to be in less favoured areas (LFA) – find it difficult to provide sufficient income. More than 35% of farmers also have jobs outside farming and this figure continues to rise. As younger generations look to other careers, the average age of farmers also rises. Those over 65 years of age now represent over a fifth of farmers while only 12% are under 35 years.

So what does the Irish agricultural industry earn? With a population of under 4m, the export business is essential. About 88% of its beef production is exported as is 80% of dairy production, 70% of sheepmeat and 40% of pigmeat. Markets extend to non-EU countries with these taking between 40%-50% of beef and dairy production annually – although there is a significant year on year variation.

In 1997 total agricultural output was worth £3309m with farmers receiving a further £915m in direct payments, mostly from the EU. Farm income amounted to £2000m from which was paid £185m in interest on farm borrowings.

Still with spending, farmers spent £1617m on inputs and services and £450m on capital investment – buildings, machinery and equipment.

For the future, Irish farmers face the uncertainty currently being experienced by those in the UK in terms of low prices. But Ireland also has its own individual problems to address.

According Irish Farmers Associations chief economist, Con Lucey, the biggest problems lie in the countrys small farm size, its ageing population and low income.

"Average annual family farm income in 1997 was about £10,400," he says. "This is equivalent to 70% of average industrial earnings." He adds that 38% of farmers earned less than £5000 from farming.

But Mr Lucey also highlights two areas which are flourishing. "Contracting enterprises are now a growth area with operations such as forage harvesting and major tillage almost their sole domain," he says. "The other sector is the forestry industry which has expanded significantly in recent years." &#42