Opinion: facing challenges from Brexit to climate change, could Irish farmers be putting their land to other uses?

By Ciarán CrowleyUniversité de Lille

Land is always the subject of lively debate, especially in Ireland. We all know this. Locals in any area like to know who owns the land, who the land was bought from and who is even most likely to buy it next. But while ownership of the land is one thing, what to actually do with the land and how make a living from it is quite another. With the ongoing dispute between beef farmers and the meat industry at the moment, this very question may well be on the minds of many farmers up and down the country.

Beef farmers contend that they have been getting a raw deal and making only very small gains (or even a loss) on their cattle compared to meat processors and supermarkets further down the supply chain. It is not surprising, then, that beef farmers have said "enough is enough" and begun their protests, citing arguments around the lack of transparency and the lack of competition concerning prices between competitors in the meat industry. It is hoped a satisfactory resolution will be found as it is important to consider the impacts on the rural economy, especially for those rural communities that are dependent on and interwoven around beef farming.

From RTÉ One's Nine News, Fran McNulty reports on how the beef dispute dominated proceedings at the first day of the Ploughing

But between the beef dispute, Brexit, changing consumer habits and climate change, many beef farmers might be left wondering "what else can I do with my land?" or "how can I make a better living from the land?" Of course, these questions are easier asked than answered.

If farmers are to make a transition from beef farming to another enterprise on the land, many challenges will be faced, including investment, risk, uncertainty, change, innovation and learning new methods. Farmers would need support to make such a transition, as well as adequate financial incentives to make it worth their while.

Here are some of those possible alternatives for farmers and land-owners to consider

(1) Dairy farming

The price of milk means this currently represents the most attractive option for beef farmers. However, this is little consolation for older beef farmers with small-sized holdings who could not be expected to make major investments towards the end of their careers, nor for landowners where the land is not suited to dairy farming.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, Gerry Boyle from Teagasc discusses their report which found that Irish dairy farms are producing up to three times more greenhouse gas and ammonia emissions than other farming sectors

(2) Diversification

As anyone who has received good (or bad) financial advice knows, it is generally important to diversify one’s financial portfolio and to have savings or property, as well as shares. Teagasc gives many creative proposals on how farmers can seek to diversify, ranging from rural tourism and organic farming to renewable energy, solar panels and energy crops. Nevertheless, research carried out by Dr. David Meredith has noted that most farmers are not interested in a diversified farm and prefer to get a job outside of the farm when it is not viable.

(3) Leasing the land

This is a popular and practical option in Ireland as only 0.5% of land goes up for sale each year, meaning there is often demand from farmers wishing to expand their operations.

From RTÉ Radio 1's CountryWide, an interview with John Connell, author of The Cow Book about life on an Irish family farm

(4) Forestry and woodlands

This is an alternative that is is currently en vogue, due to a combination of tax breaks, government encouragement and a push to plant more trees to combat greenhouse emissions. Original options such as agroforestry are appealing as it allows the continuation of farming on the land and has proved a success in countries like France.

However, research has shown that the concerns of local communities need to be heard when it comes to other forms of forestry. The Save Leitrim campaign is an example of a community contesting the negative effects Sitka spruce plantations have had on natural habitats and biodiversity in their area. Therefore, more community involvement is needed in forestry planning so as to allow locals to enjoy recreational activities in woodlands and forests near where they live ("multi-functional forestry"). This is one aim of the new Coillte Nature initiative. The impossibility to use the land in other ways in the future once the land is planted in forestry has also been a concern for landowners.

From RTÉ Archives, Paul Cunningham reports for RTÉ News in 2002 on the 16 millennium forests which were planted in 2000 with a tree for every household in Ireland

(5) High Nature Value Farming

This is an evolving movement that seeks to help farmers, as well as nature. The Bride Project in East Cork/West Waterford and the Burren Programme are just two examples of the wider "farming for nature" movement.

(6) Nature conservation and agri-environment schemes

Projects like GLAS (Green Low-Carbon Agri-Environment) and, previously, REPS (Rural Environment Protection Scheme), are well-known to those in the farming community and provide another option.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, a report on a farmers' protest over the closure of the REPS scheme to new entrants in 2009

While the alternative land uses outlined here may not be suitable for everyone, a discussion around land use is timely. If it’s one consolation to landowners at a crossroads on how to use their land efficiently, it’s that they can make a choice.

It is striking that there are many research projects, including The Land Mobility Service and Newbie, currently looking at how people without land such as aspiring farmers, young entrepreneurs and community groups, can achieve better access and opportunities to buy and manage land. For those who own and farm the land already, at least destiny is largely in their own hands as to what they decide to do with it.

Ciarán Crowley is a law lecturer (professeur certifié affecté dans l'enseignement supérieur) at Université de Lille, France

RTÉ Brainstorm is one of hundreds of worldwide news outlets taking part in Covering Climate Now, a project headed by the Columbia Journalism ReviewThe Nation and The Guardian to strengthen the media's focus on the climate crisis in the lead-up to the United Nations Climate Action Summit in New York on September 23rd.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ