The stillness of the Grand Canal in Tullamore perfectly complemented the quietness of William Street in the town the other night.

The place was empty. Walking across from Dick Conroy’s garage underneath the ad for Tullamore Dew at Kelly’s bar, I contrasted this stillness with the commotion which must have erupted the night Tullamore became the scene of the world’s first aviation disaster.

Imagine what Tullamore must have felt like on that fateful night in 1785,when a hot air balloon came down in the centre of the town setting fire to over 100 houses.

Did the locals try desperately to get water out of the Silver River, down by Bridge Street, to quench the inferno?

The canal was not completed for another 15 years, and now Tullamore’s wide streets, squares and solid colonial buildings – as well as its well-kept Presbyterian and Methodist churches – give the place the distinct feel of a formerly prosperous market town. It is not difficult to see how this hub of the local agricultural economy, with its canal link to Dublin, must have boomed in the late 18th century.

Last Thursday night, it was dead. The streets bore all the hallmarks of today’s Ireland. Strolling past O’Donovan and Cowen Solicitors – founded by you know who – everything in the window of Shoes ForU was 50 per cent off. Across the street in Rebecca’s, KMB boots – swanky, wedged boots for a certain type of woman – were also advertised at half-price.

It was the same story in Galvin’s Menswear and Jen Joe Shoes for Kids – opposite the offices of the Tullamore Tribune – where everything was slashed to sell. This is a town whose retail heart is suffering badly. This is the story of provincial Ireland.

How can this be fixed? The wonderful people I met last Thursday night were asking the same question. Many were members of Irish Rural Link, a nationwide movement that aims to keep rural communities alive.

A local man, Seamus Boland, has been at the heart of this movement for over two decades, working quietly and courageously trying to preserve the quality of life in some of the most rural and isolated parts of our country.

The people spoke of the disproportionate impact that emigration is having on rural Ireland. Few in the room didn’t have a child or a brother or sister who hadn’t emigrated in the past year or two.

The community has been destroyed, leaving parents isolated and the marrow hollowed out of the local economy.

At the heart of rural Ireland is farming. Could we reinvent farming in Ireland as part of a recovery? Regular readers of this column will be aware of my interest in marts. The good news for farmers in this part of the world is that, since Christmas, prices in the Tullamore Mart are up between €50 and €70 per head.

But while things look good for agricultural prices for 2011, margins will still be under pressure. Inputs to agriculture (fuel and feedstuffs) are also much more expensive than in previous years.

According to Teagasc, direct payments accounted for 143 per cent of farm incomes. This means that the average farm in Ireland is run at an operating loss. Yet there is a huge opportunity there. Think about what is going on around the globe. The world’s population is rising and, more significantly, its diet is changing. As the Chinese get richer, they want to eat like us. Middle-class Chinese citizens want to eat beef and dairy products.

In fact, looking at the explosion of alternative Chinese medicine shops in south Dublin, it seems that, while the middle class of China wants to become western, the middle class of the West wants to be Chinese – but that’s another story.

The key is this: demand for food will go through the roof in decades to come, and it is the type of food that we produce.

We can already see this process; last week, the riots in Egypt were partly to do with democracy, but were prompted by the rise in the price of food.

The increase in the global price of beef and dairy is a given, so what are we going to do about it?

This is a golden opportunity for Irish farming but, to take advantage of it, we must act now. Unfortunately, agriculture is dominated by subsidies, and these are not a long-term answer to agricultural as a business.

Subsidies are necessary for us to be able to have food produced at an affordable price so we can buy it in the shops. Ireland receives about €1.7 billion per year in agricultural subsidies from the EU (or €13,000 per farm).

Payments like these distort the market, but abandoning them would mean that agriculture would collapse in Ireland.

Without massive price rises, every farmer in the country would be insolvent in a year.

So what are we going to do to keep the price of food in Ireland reasonable, and keep the rural economy alive? Believe it or not, the answer is probably more subsidies.

The agriculture industry needs to be shaken up – uneconomic, small farms will only be a drag on the industry, as subsidies that go to these farms simply allow those farmers to survive, rather than thrive.

Without consolidation and a return of the kind of investment that agriculture hasn’t seen in two decades, agriculture will not be in a position to face the challenges that will come with global demands for higher production in the coming decades.

So, instead of telling average farmers that they will get a subsidy – ie a subsistence payment – farmers could get an ‘investment payment’.

Tell every farmer that they will get four times’ the average payment – say, €50,000 per annum for the next five years – to get their farms set up for the new ‘high production-low margin’ farming model that is needed to make the industry sustainable in the future.

After five years of payments for capital infrastructure input, farmers should get nothing more. This would liberate farmers to really make a go of things – and most are not afraid of this. They are aware of what is going on in the world, and the opportunities that are available.

The time to do that is now. Let’s think: investing €50,000 in each farm each year for the next five years would be a total investment of close to €33 billion. That’s about how much we put into Anglo Irish Bank for nothing.

If we are prepared to waste this public money on a financial cesspit, we shouldn’t baulk at investing a similar amount in one of the ‘real’ industries we have. A five-year stimulus plan, instead of a €1.7 billion annual subsidy, would transform the industry, rather than maintain a status quo that is going to get us nowhere.

We can totally change the face of agriculture in Ireland for the cost of one Anglo. And the money would not be wasted. Capital spending would provide some desperately-needed employment in the areas of the economy that have been hardest hit – construction and semiskilled workers.

After five years, the efficient and well run farms will survive, and production will rise to meet the demands of a global population of seven billion people.

However, without some new thinking, agriculture will be stuck in the doldrums, and market towns like Tullamore will stagnate.

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