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Opening Address by Teagasc Director, Professor Gerry Boyle to the Teagasc Nation

Good morning Ladies and Gentlemen, Introduction Ireland has experienced tremendous change over the past two decades and the transformation looks set to continue.

Good morning Ladies and Gentlemen,

Introduction

Ireland has experienced tremendous change over the past two decades and the transformation looks set to continue. Rural areas are no exception – population growth and new settlement patterns; the rise of new and the decline of old sectors; changing patterns of land use; enhanced lifestyle expectations of people living in rural areas; and new policy regimes are only some of the key drivers of an ever changing rural Ireland. Teagasc and our partner organisations in rural development are seeking to investigate, understand and respond to such changes – in other words, to Embrace Change, the theme of today’s conference.

Changing economic circumstances have presented opportunities for both farming and non-farming components of the rural economy. The agricultural sector is experiencing profound change on many levels, a prospect of trend real price increases for food; the opportunities presented for the harvesting of bioresources in the wake of "peak oil" and climate change; and deep-seated changes in food preferences. Economic growth has also presented many opportunities for off-farm employment for both farming and non-farming communities, allowing for greater numbers of people to live in rural areas.

However, these changes have brought with it both the benefits of higher incomes and consumption but also some challenges to quality of life such as the pressures on family life brought by potentially working both on-farm and off-farm, combined with lengthy commutes. Population growth also has frequently outpaced the speed with which services such as retail, transport, health, education and childcare can expand, again putting pressure on the quality of life. Some areas, particularly those outside of the commuting zones, have seen fewer employment opportunities and face problems relating to isolation and access to services.

Recent economic changes bring both challenges and opportunities. Contraction in the construction sector has resulted in fewer opportunities for off-farm employment in this sector. However, the bioeconomy, which represents economic activity that uses renewable bioresources and bioprocesses to produce sustainable bioproducts, jobs and income presents substantial opportunities for economic development in rural areas.

There are also significant unexploited opportunities in other land uses such as rural tourism and recreation, activities that have declined in recent times. Rising incomes, lifestyle choices and a more diverse population are also bringing opportunities for value-added food products.

The key to improving the quality of life and living standards of its stakeholders and clients is to increase value added through innovation. Innovation and farm diversification are important components of the rural development agenda. The Lisbon strategy states the need to “encourage diversification and innovation in rural areas” and to pursue a route towards “a higher value added, more flexible rural economy” (CEC, 2007). Teagasc is committed to expanding the knowledge base in the agri-food and wider biosector and thereby to ensure that the rural economy is an active player in the "knowledge economy". Our role is to support innovation on farms and firms.

What is rural development?

There's a basic question that I would like to have at least a partial answer to at the end of this conference and it’s this – what is rural development all about or what ought it to be all about? Sometimes it appears to me at least that there’s a great fog about the concept with several different notions swirling around out there. At times there’s an almost Orwellian aspect to what passes for rural development, as least as far as public policy interventions are concerned. It sometimes appears as if "rural development is whatever I say it means".

I have a very simple view as to what rural development should be about – "building sustainable rural communities". Sustainability has economic, social and environmental dimensions but economic sustainability has to be the driver.

Economic sustainability involves maximising per capita income in rural areas; social sustainability primarily requires primarily ensuring an adequate access to services and an end to rural isolation, and environmental sustainability means using our rich natural resources for the benefit of current and future generations.

The "building of sustainable communities" covers a wide ranging and challenging agenda. Rural development will be driven in the first instance by the actions of private individuals and organisations, including farms and firms taking risks and “embracing change”. However, there is clearly a role for public intervention in support of private initiatives. This public intervention needs to be coherent in its delivery if the huge breadth of issues, in areas ranging from rural infrastructure to enterprise development, is to be capable of being adequately addressed.

Partnership

I believe what is needed is a partnership structure than can embrace all of the relevant public agencies and rural stakeholders. A properly functioning rural development partnership would: focus on setting the rural development agenda; identify the different partners that are best placed to deliver individual elements of that agenda; and, provide high-level oversight on the implementation of the agenda.

Teagasc has a competence in many aspects of the supports needed to build sustainable rural communities but we recognise also that we absolutely need to collaborate and co-operate with other relevant agencies and stakeholders.

I see Teagasc's competence being first and foremost to maximise the contribution that primary agriculture (including forestry) and processing can make to the enhancement of farm incomes. This requires us to provide the best available technical information to maximise the sector’s productivity and thereby secure competitiveness. But in a post-decoupled era, where the imperative will be for farmers to become more entrepreneurial, they will need more support for the required strategic decision making and option choices.

Continued support will be needed in providing evidence-based information on market and policy developments, such as the path-breaking work being undertaken by FAPRI-Ireland. We have an excellent and proven capacity in this area.

But one area that we are deficient in concerns processing research. This deficit has become increasingly obvious as more dairy farmers are contemplating expansion. Efficient processing of agricultural products will be an important factor in the economics of expansion. Farmers are also rightly seeking guidance on the impact of global developments in commodity prices on the prices that they are likely to receive for their milk. This is an area that will require careful examination and as a matter of urgency.

Farmers are increasingly aware, and will become more aware, that they have to be 'farmerpreneurs' and this implies that they will need support in planning and managing change. This will require a different emphasis to the traditional advisory role and also in the research support for this new type of intervention. The support needed in undertaking change and the associated necessary risk-taking is not primarily of a technological nature.

'Farmerpreneurs' will need assistance in considering new departures, whether this involves expansion of an existing activity or an entirely new departure, e.g., bioenergy. Socio-economic input in research, advisory and educational terms will be needed to supplement our traditional emphasis on technological support. To take one important example, in a post-quota era many farmers are likely to be constrained in their expansion options by the availability of land. This is not primarily a technological challenge and farmers can be assisted to overcome the constraint by a concerted effort by suitably-qualified advisers, supported by relevant research, to explore options, such as, succession planning, leasing and partnership opportunities of various kinds.

Our second primary competence in support of rural development involves support for environmental sustainability. The achievement of a thriving commercial agricultural sector whilst ensuring environmental sustainability absolutely requires a multi-disciplinary approach embracing the best available technological and economic research and advice. The goal is to strive for win-win outcomes.

But the rural environment has also non-market uses for tourism and recreational uses. The rationale for many direct payments to farmers of course is seen as compensation for maintaining our rural environment so that these uses can continue to be enjoyed by rural and non-rural dwellers alike. Taxpayers must constantly be re-assured that their contribution is justified. Economic research conducted by Teagasc and in collaboration with partners in the universities and other institutions can provide this re-assurance.

A third area where we can support rural development initiatives concerns the development of rural natural-resource-based business ventures. Our comparative advantage naturally lies in adding value to the primary products that are harvested from our natural resources of land and water. It should be remembered that while this activity is largely non-farm in nature it can take place both on-farm and off-farm. Teagasc’s farm-client database is a unique access point for the support of this type of activity on-farm. We have limited expertise and resources in this area and we clearly need to work closely with partners such as Leader, the CEBs, FÁS and Enterprise Ireland.

Conferences such as this are vital cogs in increasing the dialogue between partners and in promoting and deepening our co-operation.

The conference takes the theme Embracing Change, recognising that change represents not just challenges, but also opportunities. Embracing change is a challenge facing farmers, rural dwellers and the agencies which provide them with services.

In addition to presentations from Teagasc personnel, I welcome the participation of some of the foremost rural agencies in rural Ireland: FÁS, LEADER, Pobal, Irish Rural Link and Western Development Commission.