There are four key areas that constantly come up for discussion when Teagasc comes under the spotlight – the board of directors, the assets of the organisation, its budget and its goals.
There has been considerable change in both the farmer-facing parts of Teagasc and the budget in Prof Boyle’s tenure.
A large number of advisory offices have been dropped from lease or sold, and research farms or stations dropped and some improved.
The independence of Teagasc has come under the spotlight and the organisation is garnering more and more support from private companies and EU institutions.
We ask outgoing director Prof Boyle is the independence of Teagasc under threat.
The Teagasc board
If we go back to when Prof Boyle took up office in 2007, we see a Teagasc board that had 11 members. Now that number has risen to 13. Back then the assistant secretary with the Department of Agriculture (Jim Beecher at the time) sat on the board, but that is no longer the case.
The representative organisations– IFA, ICMSA, Macra and ICOS – had seats then and still do. Back 15 years ago you also had a milk processor CEO on the board. No meat or milk processor CEO sits on the board at the moment. It is almost all dairy farmers that fill the representative seats.
The offices and research stations
When Prof Boyle started, Teagasc had almost 89 advisory offices operational in total. That has been whittled back to just over 40 offices. In terms of research stations, Knockbeg near Carlow, Leenane in Mayo, Raheen in Limerick and Kilmaley in Clare have got the chop. The valuable site at Kinsealy in Dublin was sold. The lease on Ballydague Research farm was dropped.
At the same time there have been significant developments at Moorepark (Cork), Grange (Meath), Athenry (Galway), Johnstown Castle (Wexford) and further developments in research at Colleges in Ballyhaise (Cavan) and Clonakilty (Cork).
If we look at the income and expenditure account around the time Prof Boyle started we see Teagasc income was just shy of €148m with costs of €152m. Back then about €120m came from the Department (grants), €1.2m from the EU and €25m in operational income. The balance sheet in 2004 had total assets less current liabilities of €80m.
In 2020, income was just shy of €189m, with costs of €179m. If we look at the balance sheet, Teagasc had a total assets less current liabilities of €160m. Now there is about €152m coming from Department (grants), €11.8m from EU, €10m Science Foundation Ireland and Enterprise Ireland and €34m in operational income (50/50 advisory/research).
Just prior to Gerry starting the listed Teagasc key goals were the competitiveness of agriculture, food processing, sustainability, rural viability, integrity of the food chain, and efficient organisation were key goals.
Interestingly, some of the other items in focus at the time were developing a grass growth model, and a new grassland soil moisture model and a five-year biodiversity project was undertaken in collaboration with University College Dublin and University College Limerick. That project set out to investigate management strategies to improve plant diversity in agricultural swards using small-scale plot experiments with different mixtures of species.
The Shannon Callows Task Force report was in the news, as were the Burren scrub encroachment project and hedgerow management courses for contractors. Studies on animal welfare of heifers travelling to Spain were undertaken and shown to have no adverse animal welfare effect.
The environment was in the spotlight back then also
Organic farming was in the spotlight and seven demonstration farms were established with over 1,000 attending open days on these farms.
The environment was in the spotlight back then also and a number of the annual reports featured reports on studies defining the relationship between stock carrying capacity and level of artificial nitrogen applied. The study objectives over 15 years ago were to minimise the loss to the environment.
It’s hard to believe but each of the very projects mentioned in the Teagasc annual reports from over 15 years ago have been given fresh impetus in 2020 and 2021.
Organics is being pushed by the EU, water quality is in the spotlight, multispecies swards is higher up in priority and hedgerow management is back front and centre.
Jack Kennedy: As part of the Moorepark open day forum you made a specific plea for increased Teagasc funding? Where are the gaps or what more should be done?
Gerry Boyle: “The scale of the environmental challenge on top of embedded challenges of low livelihood is overwhelming. It needs huge resources and we don’t have the personnel for example to look at the physics of global warming, we don’t have expertise nationally, and we need to invest. Another example is the sequestration challenge – the most recent challenge here is the “fit for 55” programme – a 55% emissions reduction target by 2030. We don’t have the depth or scale to tackle something like this. Another example is soil health. We need a database on soils and carbon and need that before we can say how soils need to be managed. Contemplate the cost of that for a minute, the infrastructure and staff expertise required.”
We have seen a shift in part of the Department agri funding pot divided out to other stakeholders reinforced with farmer subventions over the last 20 years. Historically, that funding – eg ICBF and breeding, AHI for somatic cell count, BVD etc – probably lie within the Teagasc budget. Is this positive or a cause of conflict? You could argue both ICBF and AHI have been very successful? Is there a role for a separate organisation on climate or the environment?
“Interesting question. I’m a strong believer in diversity. A monopoly on delivery is not positive. If you can have meaningful partnerships and collaboration that work it is far better than embedding everything into a single unit. Yes the reduction in cell count – AHI brought to bear a different approach. And yes there are always tensions, some partnerships work better than others, and yes there is good collaboration with the ICBF and yes there is always creative tension.”
Are you confident Department will continue to back Teagasc? Any issues over threat to independence and getting dragged into compliance issues for the Department?
“I believe so yes. The Department are very demanding and don’t interfere on the day-to-day business but we are expected to support Government policy. We have an annual review agreement.”
We see a big shift in funding aligned to commercial industry support – for example joint programmes with dairy co-ops, factories, competitions, food innovation hubs etc. Is that a dangerous position that could threaten the independence of the organisation?
“Risk of blurring of lines can be overstated and we have to look at the balance of the positives and negatives. The joint programmes with co-ops are very positive as KPIs are made public.
…but, if farmers in these programmes are forced to trade with one entity only, is that positive?
“It has to be made very clear at the start to the partner that there is a line you can’t cross and that’s something that can be very difficult to maintain in the commercial world and has been scrutinised and we have to be very careful on. We have improved how we operate this with strict contractual arrangements and it’s certainly sensitive.”
Teagasc also getting a significant level of grant funding every year now from Enterprise Ireland, Science Foundation Ireland and other international organisations - is there a danger the organisation gets dragged away from its core remit chasing these sources of funds?
“We have to be in a position to win research awards but we have been quite selective in what we target. Income for income’s sake is not much use as it needs to complement mission. There has been a strong convergence in funding opportunity on the environmental side but there is a strong consistency on what we wanted anyway. However, I do see in some of our counterpart organisations there has been a drift away from supporting productivity that benefits farmers, processors and wider society – we have to keep investing in productivity advances. The USDA are not investing in herd-based research anymore which I believe is a retrograde step.”
Is ‘research’ growing in importance over ‘advisory’ or where do we see the vision for the future of the organisation?
“When I started with Teagasc I had little knowledge of the advisory side of Teagasc but over time grew to accept the critical importance of the advisory function. Research unless practised is useless – there is a term the ‘valley of death’ between research and advisory. In Teagasc we really embraced discussion groups and the importance of demonstration farms. On food processing, we have been innovative to try and get good dynamic Irish companies aware of our research with gateway events to create a dialogue between researchers and processors. Yes, some technology is adapted quicker. Look at EBI versus grassland management – EBI adoption is much better.”
Income from fees for advisory services is up 10% since 2015 to €10.3m. Is that more clients or higher cost of service?
“I need to see detail of where shift has been. I would have said it’s fairly stable, with marginal lifts in the cost of the service, but we do not have full cost recovery. Some of the KT schemes we got indirectly, not from farmer, and there is also variation in income through colleges and student fees.”
On staffing - annual pension costs are down a nice bit in the last five years and staff numbers are back on the up?
“On staff numbers, we were down on the floor. We recruit up to a wage bill determined by the Department. Outside of that we go to the Department and make a specific case but increasingly the Department of Expenditure and Public reform constrain the Department of Agriculture. We have been pushing for a starting salary increase to €35,000 but to no avail. It appears the rules are not as tight for the Universities which makes it more difficult for us. For me, the capital budget part is the least satisfactory as it has to be determined on a case-by-case basis. In principle we can’t borrow so we need cash reserves all the time.”
Biggest regret as you go out the door?
“I was interviewed very early on in my tenure and I mentioned that the income of beef farmers needed to be improved. At the time I didn’t fully appreciate the challenges involved. I’m disappointed with the progress we have made on that side. Separately while the industry has made strides in adopting grassland management I feel there is still a lot more room for improvement and I’m disappointed farmers haven’t adopted the grass technology piece enough.”