From Socialist Voice, January 2005

Decline in farm numbers unstoppable

This year the Irish Farmers’ Association will celebrate its fiftieth year of existence. It has been in the main the representative body for the large farmers. Though it is presented in the media as the voice of all Irish farmers, in reality it has used the plight of small family farmers to extract grants and subsidies from both the Irish Government and the European Union, which have benefited the large farmers most over the decades. It cared little for the problems of small or part-time farmers; in fact it supported and endorsed policies deliberately designed to squeeze more and more small farmers off the land and to concentrate land ownership and usage.
     Since 1972 there has been a huge flight from the land; but agriculture is still a vital component of our economy and a vital national interest. The agri-food industry accounts for 8.5 per cent of gross domestic product, 9 per cent of employment, and 8.3 per cent of exports. What makes it even more important is that very few imports are associated with this industry, with the overwhelming content being home-produced and manufactured. The result is that the agri-food business accounts for nearly a fifth of our total foreign earnings from trade.
     This production is centred around 136,000 farms, with more than seven million cattle and seven million sheep; in other words, there are four times more sheep and cattle than citizens. It is estimated that 2 per cent of farmers leave farming every year, and with the recent agreement at EU level and the CAP reforms coming in at the end of January, this will surely rise.
     New figures show that although 2 per cent are leaving farming each year, there has been a drop of up to 7 per cent in the number of farmers leaving viable farms. The Agrivision 2015 report suggests that there will be only 105,000 farms in 2015, and that only 30,000 of these will be viable, with 75 per cent worked by part-time farmers. That will leave a core of approximately 10,000 full-time farmers.
     This will pose a number of problems. (1) As most of our agri-foods business is for export, mainly to Europe and North America, and the European population is steadily declining, this will tighten the market for exports. (2) We will be competing with cheaper eastern European producers, if they survive. (3) Countries such as Brazil and Argentina are pushing for greater access to European markets. (4) The United States will continue to tighten food imports on grounds of “homeland security,” i.e. securing the food supply.
     So the outcome of the next round of world trade talks will have an important bearing on the future of one of the most vital sectors of the economy. We will be left with a small number of very large industrial farms producing specialised foods for export, which in turn could lead to a huge increase in imports of basic foodstuffs to meet the country’s needs.
     The concentration of land in fewer and fewer hands is a very dangerous development. The polices of the present and past Irish Governments under the domination of the European Union will have succeeded in doing in forty years what the British tried and failed to do in two hundred years: land concentration and the removal of thousands of smallholdings. Small family farmers are paying a heavy price for their blind loyalty to Fianna Fáil over the decades.
     With great intellectual foresight, Michael Davitt, the leader and the power behind the Land League in the nineteenth century, demanded that the land should be owned by the state and given to farmers on long leases, a demand that was profoundly visionary and correct.

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