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Farming is still a major industry in Ireland. The island has the best grass on the planet and a reasonably mild climate. The result is a population of 8 million sheep and 7 million cows, far outnumbering the four million humans living in the Republic.

More than a decade ago I investigated the romantic idea of setting up in Ireland as a "gentleman farmer." I thought I'd plant trees, raise a few sheep and goats, and harvest an orchard of apple trees.

Since I knew diddly about farming, I bought a few issues of the Irish Farmer's Journal just to get me pointed in the right direction. I was expecting articles about sheep breeds and housing requirements. You know - farming stuff.

What I found, though, was a magazine devoted to strange acronyms - CAP and Top Up Headers and Ewe Premiums. I rapidly discerned that these were all arcane European Economic Community programmes designed to channel money to farmers who followed a specified set of rules and filed a requisite number of papers with the proper authorities.

Irish farmers, I learned, seemed to be principally engaged in the business of farming for grants!

The Whinge

Farm organisations were the first to grasp the importance of European funding and rapidly perfected a style of grantsmanship known as The Whinge.

The style was perfectly summed up when the head of Ireland's leading farming organisation stumbled from a meeting with the Minister of Agriculture a few years back in total shock. The farmers had been given every single pound and shilling they had asked for and the man was clearly at a loss for words when a reporter thrust a microphone into his face to ask his impressions. "Well, I can't deny that farmers did well by this meeting. But…" And then he immediately launched into a whine about how a new programme was needed to address needs not yet met.

After moving to Ireland I lived for a time on a modern Irish dairy farm and I soon learned that though European grants were part of the system, a lot of hard work and careful attention to animals was the real story.

But, the impression among the public is that farmers are a load of funding junkies, that their complaints aren't really justified, that they are the little lads who cry "Wolf!"

Down on the Farm Decoupling

Whinge ad nauseam, the fact is that farming is in decline throughout Ireland. I live in a rural, farming parish. For the past decade I've watched as one neighbour after another retired from farming and those remaining work ever bigger holdings.

My parish reflects a nationwide pattern. From 1991 to 2002 agriculture fell from 14pc of the workforce to 5pc. Meanwhile, existing farm sizes have increased. My own county of Waterford has the largest farms in the nation, averaging 45 hectares, about 100 acres. The national average is now 80 acres. In the US, by contrast, farms of 1,300 acres are regarded as barely viable. What keeps the remaining farmers in business is a lot of hard work and, until now, that complex system of subsidies and payments from the EU.

The rules governing these EU grants have changed substantially. They call this "decoupling" and the basic idea is that payments will not be based on production but on the number of acres a farmer holds. So long as minimal environmental standards are met, farmers will get paid whether they produce enough to feed an African nation or only their pet dog. The hope is that overproduction with its overpayments and environmental costs such as nitrate runoffs, overstocking and erosion can be cut.

The programme has had some discernible results. Part time farmers have signed up en masse for programmes that work to conserve and protect the native landscape. Hedges, ditches, fens and wild places are protected by a voluntary system that rewards farmers with increased grants. 60,000 farmers have signed up.

But... the remaining full time farmers are operating at ever higher levels of industrial output. Market conditions are forcing them to concentrate on efficiency. Environmental regulations are tighter, but the pressures on some lands are more intense than ever.

The ultimate goal is a better environment AND a more free farming system where individuals can make choices based not on arcane grant requirements but on actual market conditions. The jury is still out.

Life on a Farm

That's the big picture, but life on a typical small farm is still enthralling. My family and I lived for six months on an Irish dairy farm. Each day centered around the morning and evening milking. Into the milking shed came these vast, filthy animals with mucky tails and hooves that had trod through unmentionable droppings. But, each teat was cleaned, hooked up to sterilized stainless steel milking machines, and the whole place constantly hozed down and disinfected. Farmers are paid according to the quality of the milk, and they can lose a lot of money if the bacterial count goes up.

Young grass grows faster and has an average of 4 to 6% more protein than older grass, so the farmers often fence the cows into small sections of pasture. This forces the animals to graze tightly down to the base of the grass. This in turn encourages rapid regrowth of the highly desirable young grass. The cows rotate all season long from one bright green salad bowl to the next.

A more disconcerting modern practice is the regular visit by the vet. My two girls were fascinated when the vet showed up to give the pregnant cows sonograms. Even more fascinating was watching him check some of the bovine lovelies by plunging his arm nearly shoulder deep into the cows' anal opening. The girls couldn't believe their eyes and right then decided that careers in veterinary medicine lacked appeal.

During the early spring calving season, the dairy farmer dances attendance on his herd, ready to help out if the laboring mama-to-be needs assistance. We once visited a neighbor with a cow about to have a calf. We arrived exactly at the moment of birth. Another 20 seconds and we would have missed it. The farmer had to drag by brute strength the struggling calf's legs from the cow. My youngest daughter was freaked! The calf was a sight, what with afterbirth and blood and umbilical cord draped all over her. And then the mother ate the afterbirth! My eldest, very scientific, explained that she had read animals eat the afterbirth to help cover up the scent from predators.

This dairy farm's web site can be viewed by clicking here.

Farm Grants 2010 & 2011

I'm in the midst of a farming community, so I pick up on some of what's happening. But, the business end I'm not terribly competent on - just what I hear on the news and read in the occasional farm supplement found in the Independent Newspaper.

But, theeee one and only key farm information news source is the Irish Farmers Journal. You'll find it at farmersjournal.ie It's put out by the Irish Farmer's Association which is by far the biggest and most influential of the national farm organisations. Most active farmers - those making their living from farming as opposed to doing some part time farm work - are members.

When you reach the site, click on the button saying Online Paper Edition and then choose from the drop down list "View Current Edition Online". This paper comes out weekly.

Controversially, a not very attractive envirnomental protection grant has replaced the much better REPS scheme. The countryside will suffer as a result. There may be some other environmental allowances for keeping your land protected, but Reps was the big one.

Most of the other EU farm payment schemes and supports have been rolled into one big payment - the Single Farm Payment or SFP in farm jargon. You get it if you or your farm has been getting payments previously. Now you're paid the one lump sum and you don't have to do anything on the farm to earn it - no milk schemes or potato growing schemes. You take the money and do what you think is best for your farm which might include planting nothing at all.

This Single Farm Payment is an EU-wide scheme and it's due to end in 2014. But of course, the farmers will start lobbying for a replacement of some kind before it expires. The last agreement said "no, this is the end" but we shall see. It's all part of the CAP - the Common Agricultural Policy of the EU.

Meanwhile, some special grants are available - the Upland Sheep Scheme and many others - so don't ask me, a non-farmer, to explain how a Single Farm Payment is only one of many. However, also check out the Dept. of Agriculture site for some background. On the home page they have a section titled Farmer Scheme Payments with links to pages which explain the schemes and payments.

Forestry. The standard these days is for farmers to hire a specialist forestry planting firm. The firm's experts discuss everything with you, draw up the plans necessary to get the grants, plant the type of trees you want within the constraints of the grant conditions, send in the application for the money and collect the first payment or a fair amount of it as their fee. After that, it's yours. In 30 to 100 years, you call them up and have them cut your forest and sell the trees and you collect your check. You see why most farmers plant fast growing conifers - not only is the market there, but you have a fair chance to collect the money yourself as opposed to, say, your great grandchildren.

The Forest Service site has the basic information you want.

The single best thing to do if you're interested in farming, grants, forestry, energy generation, anything to do with farming is to go to the annual National Ploughing Championship. It's an absolutely wonderful experience and every firm in the country connected with farming in any way is there as well as tons of consumer oriented firms. It's always held in late September - and it always rains like crazy. So, dress for it.

The Ploughing Championships move every year to another spot around the country - not too far north, south, east or west so that anyone from anywhere in the country can manage the drive. This coming year's will be in Kildare which is about as close to Dublin as it ever gets. In one day or two, if you're willing to ask questions and eat fast food, you'll find out all you want to know about everything you want to know. The website is http://www.npa.ie/

More Information

The key farming organisations and their websites are listed below.

For something totally different, here are my own thoughts on Irish grass.



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