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Ferris calls for farmers to be included in Pension Scheme

30 November, 2006

The Sinn Féin Spokesperson on Agriculture, Martin Ferris TD has reiterated his call for farmers who are in receipt of the state Pension to be allowed participate in a scheme that allows recipients to earn €100 per week without it affecting their benefits. Deputy Ferris expressed his hope that the criteria for the scheme will be altered in the Budget to allow around 15,000 elderly farmers to take part. Deputy Ferris will make the call during his address to the ICMSA AGM being held at Limerick Racecourse today.

Text of Deputy Ferris' speech:

The vision which Sinn Féin has for rural Ireland is one in which the greatest possible number of people are living in rural communities, if that is their choice. Instead, what we have been witnessing for most of the lifetime of this state is an enormous shift from rural Ireland to the major cities and towns.

That is a situation that benefits neither urban nor rural dweller. On the one hand you have all the problems of congestion, costly or unavailable housing, crime and the breakdown of communities. On the other hand, you have a lack of resources and a decline in public services, schools, post offices and so on.

There is a need for balanced development and that requires more emphasis on the rural economy. We all accept that agriculture does not require as many people as it once did but I would strongly argue that many of the small and medium sized family farms that have gone, or are threatened with going out, of existence could be preserved.

I note that in your own submission to the Dáil Committee in April that you stated that the market led approach to dairying will spell the end of milk in large parts of the state. Indeed I pointed this out when the Prospectus Report on dairying was published a few years ago and I asked the then Minister Joe Walsh whether he stood over its acceptance of severe restrictions in the numbers of farms and processors. He agreed that this was the most likely scenario.

That is not good enough. The European model of farming, which is supposed to underlie the CAP, explicitly states that family farming is central to that model and that food security and the social cohesion of rural communities must take precedent over the market.

Obviously the market is important and farmers need to be able to sell what they produce but there is no such thing as a free market. You know that from the manner in which the large milk processors cut the price paid for milk. Beef farmers know it from the same practises by the meat factories and those who grow vegetables and fruit have seen their share of the price charged to consumers steadily eroded because of the dominant position of the major retailers.

If a completely free market was allowed to operate then all supports under the CAP would be abolished and the EU opened up to cheaper produce from outside the EU. That is the logic of the free market but it is one that could only be deployed to the detriment of both farmers and consumers as the latter would lose out in terms of quality and safety and eventually in value.

Sinn Féin supports the maintenance of the CAP and we supported its reform. The reason we did so was that we believed that the Single Farm Payment could provide a basic level of income security decoupled from the need to draw down premimums and subsidies. That offers the potential for people to move into different areas of production with the possibility of higher incomes in particular areas.

Whether decoupling is working in that way remains to be seen and it would be my opinion that more needs to be done from the Department's point of view in facilitating the massive changes expected of the sector at the present time.

It is Sinn Féin's belief for example that higher value domestic processing, with a corresponding increase in farmers incomes, should be encouraged and we have also made the suggestion that one way to ensure this would be for farmers themselves to become more involved as they were in the past in the way in which the processing companies operate. Certainly the decline of the old co-operatives has not seemed to benefit farmers in the long run.

One of the issues we have also raised with the Government is the exclusion of farmers from a new scheme that allows people in receipt of the state Pension to earn up to €100 per week with affecting their entitlements. The scheme is a good one but it is unfair that elderly farmers, many of whom subsist on low income, should be excluded. I am therefore reiterating my call, prior to next week's Budget, for Minister Seamus Brennan to amend the terms of the scheme.

In terms of alternative production systems Sinn Féin were among the first to support the growing of energy crops here. We were certainly the first to propose that the former sugar factories, once it became clear that the EU was going ahead with its proposal to close down the sugar industry here, would be transformed over to the processing of sugar beet for the production of biofuels.

Unfortunately that idea was rejected by Greencore who, having pocketed the lions share of the compensation fund to the detriment of producers and the workforce, are now cynically proposing to use the former sites for property development. These are the same people who are refusing to honour their commitments on redundancy and who co-operated in the closing down of what was one of the most successful enterprises in the history of the state.

There is massive potential in biofuels and I have visited and met with a number of people involved in the sector. For it to work requires more to be done in terms of crop grants and tax incentives. But where this country does have a massive advantage is in the land and the fact that with decoupling there are many farmers willing and able to move into this area.

The Government has set ambitious targets for renewable energy over the next decade which are laudable but those targets will not be met unless either the proper environment is created to promote the growing and processing of energy crops here, or we replace our dependence on importing fossil fuels for importing biofuels. We have no choice in regard to oil but it would be a shame if we were not able to capitalise on our natural advantages in regard to the former.

Another area of increasing importance is access to land and the fact that farmers are forced to compete with property developers and others. We have suggested that one way to deal with this problem in the face of ever expanding urban areas is for the state to intervene where there is a clear demand for agricultural land and to ensure that it is retained as agricultural land and that active farmers are given a preference when it comes to sale.


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