The new chair of the Teagasc authority, Liam Herlihy, told the Oireachtas agriculture committee this Tuesday that rules on the agency's access to finance and difficulties in recruiting staff are affecting its ability to deliver agricultural education and research.
Teagasc is not allowed to take out loans or run an overdraft and has been dependent on land sales or once-off Government grants for major investments in the past.
"Not having the capacity to borrow money is an impediment to the development of agriculture and the delivery of our objective," Herlihy said. "We cannot keep selling fields forever."
We're facing challenges in recruiting and retaining top calibre staff
This has been compounded by staffing issues. "We're facing challenges in recruiting and retaining top-calibre staff," he said, highlighting the particularly low salaries Teagasc is obliged to offer to young qualified researchers.
In recent years, its education section has relied on short-term lecturers to keep courses going and this needs to be renewed, the new chair said.
"We have a difficulty in accommodating the number of students who are on a waiting list for both part-time and distance learning courses unless we are able to continue to recruit contract teaching staff," he warned.
Fine Gael senator Tim Lombard said this raised concerns as the age profile of Teagasc staff was likely to increase.
Trees on dairy farms
This comes at a time when Teagasc's research effort is increasingly turning to climate change issues. Its economic studies will now focus on establishing the cost of mitigating greenhouse gas emissions, and Brexit.
Herlihy said a key area of development would be sustainable forestry.
"It is particularly important where we include native woodlands, on dairy farms in particular, as we deal with the growth of dairy farms within the context of climate change," he said. This answered concerns from Fianna Fáil TD Jackie Cahill who said: "We have to be careful with expansion that we don't lose our green image."
Herlihy also highlighted the consequences of climate change for farmers, saying that this year's extreme weather events may happen again.
The target we had to increase milk production by 50% up to the year 2020 is likely to be met this year
Yet "despite the very difficult year we've had in 2018, the Food Harvest target we had to increase milk production by 50% up to the year 2020 is likely to be met this year and I think this is something to be seen as very positive," he added.
He was more cautious about the drystock sector, saying: "The level of profitability in beef farming is a concern."
In crop research, Herlihy said Teagasc would be redoubling its efforts to develop more resistant varieties "as various agrochemicals will be withdrawn".
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