Opinion

Minister for Agriculture job – Ultimate hospital pass or jewel in the crown?

As the new Minister for Agriculture, Michael Creed, sits back in his chair at the top of the Department of Agriculture in Kildare Street he’s bound to be asking himself, what have I got myself into?

Have I just been given the ultimate hospital pass by Enda or the jewel in the crown of the Irish economy?

There’s no doubt the clouds are grey over Irish agriculture at present and times are tough for farmers on the ground.

The dairy sector is facing the worst crisis in a generation with milk prices plummeting 22% in 12 months, with most dairy farmers set to produce below the cost of production this year. And unfortunately for the new Minister, there appears no end in sight at present and little that he can do to solve what is a global problem.

For beef farmers, producing below the cost of production is nothing new. Official figures show that many beef farmers are struggling to breakeven in most years with direct payments continuing to be the bedrock of the sector.

On top of this, many beef industry commentators are wincing with the prospect of what’s to come in 2016. Increased dairy births in 2014 and into 2015 will see supplies of cattle increase dramatically towards the end of the year. The knock-on impact of this on prices seems ominous.

Meanwhile, the sheep farmers aren’t too enamoured either by meat factories opening offers for lambs this year. With a tough spring now hopefully behind them, many would have hoped for a better price to in some way recoup increased expenditure during the cold spring.

Tillage farmers are also finding things tough of late, so much so the future of Irish tillage farming has been called into doubt as farmers face an unprecedented income crisis due to continuing low grain prices, coupled with a very difficult and late spring.

Current indications are for a further reduction in overall sowings for the current crop year with spring barley likely to fall by an additional 15,000 ha as many growers are forced to leave land fallow.

Many pig farmers are also questioning if there’s a future in their sector. For almost two years now pig prices have been depressed across Europe as a result of the Russian ban, driving many pig farmers to the brink of bankruptcy.

With these, just some of the challenges facing the new Minister, one would wonder who’d want the job at all?

However, some still regard agriculture as the jewel in the crown of the Irish economy. It drove on during the tough times to keep the country on its feet and thousands in their jobs.

During recession and austerity, farmers continued with their jobs every day, driving the economic activity which kept Ireland and rural Ireland, in particular, going.

The agrifood sector has performed strongly in recent years despite very difficult economic circumstances, with exports reaching an estimated €10.83 billion in 2015, an increase of more than 50% since 2009.

While Minister Creed undoubtedly faces huge, varied and immediate challenges, he can rely on the hardest-working members of the Irish workforce to get the sector back on track.

All they ask for is a bit of help and, most of all, fair play.