The reported demise of rural Ireland does not tally with the reality when it comes to farming, Minister for Agriculture Simon Coveney has said.
Mr Coveney was speaking the day after an alliance of organisations combined to start a "Save Rural Ireland" campaign and after RTÉ broadcast The Battle for Rural Ireland documentary by Richard Curran.
“The kind of programming and commentary we’ve seen around the so-called demise of rural Ireland simply doesn’t tally with what’s happening in agriculture,” said Mr Coveney.
“We’ve seen the price of agricultural land increase, we’ve seen our agricultural colleges full, bursting at the seams . . . we’ve seen a lot of people . . . doing courses online and we’re seeing generational change in agriculture the likes of which we’ve never seen before,” he added.
Mr Coveney said people were “talking about young people leaving rural Ireland, but all of the evidence is the opposite for us in fact”.
He said the greatest pressure on him from bodies looking for sanctions for more staff was coming from Teagasc because it had insufficient lecturers to cater for the increased demand for its courses.
Mountbellew agricultural college in Co Galway had the highest number of students since 1906. “In the lifetime of the last government they were talking about closing down Mountbellew,” he said. “And all of that is happening because of good things; an excitement that’s built around the opportunities that are emerging that simply haven’t been there for many years.”
He said the abolition of milk quotas in just over two weeks was arguably the most significant policy change that rural Ireland had seen for many years. It was conservative to say 10,000 jobs would be created in the next five or six years because of the removal of quotas. “And that’s just one sector within agriculture,” he said.
“Dairy expansion is real, it’s significant, it’s about to happen and it’s about to make a dramatic change to a lot of counties in the country, some of which don’t have a huge amount of other alternatives for employment.”
Mr Coveney also noted that 24 per cent of all bank loans went to farmers last year. “Six per cent of the working population got a quarter of bank loans last year,” he said. “So that is the appetite for investment and planning for growth that we are seeing at farm level.”
If the food industry was included, one-third of all bank loans went to the agri-food sector. And they are planning to do an awful lot more.”
He estimated that about €1 billion had been invested on farms over the last three years “and that will continue”.
Mr Coveney rejected suggestions that Ireland should not expand its dairy sector because of climate change concerns.
“Ireland currently produces its milk at the lowest emissions intensity in the world, along with New Zealand,” he said. “So the idea that you would ask a country like Ireland to produce less milk and simply allow that milk production to be picked up somewhere else in the world where they have a higher level of emissions per litre of milk is making a negative contribution to a global problem,” he said.