Tuesday, 16 June 2009
Dáil Eireann Debate
Deputy Jim O’Keeffe: I make a special plea on behalf of the farming community of the south west following an approach made to me by a number of farming families there. As everybody knows, dairying is the centrepiece of farming activities in the south. County Cork has one third of our dairy production and in the wider context, two thirds of the entire dairy production for the country is in Munster.
The primary educational centre for the dairy industry is the college at Darrara, near Clonakilty, in west Cork. This college is in the heartland of the dairy industry with four major co-operatives in my constituency nearby, with many others throughout the entire south west. My colleague, Deputy Michael Creed, recently described it as an engine of the commercial agriculture sector. The college has done a magnificent job over the years and there has been significant investment over that time, no doubt helped by the support of my former colleague, former Deputy Joe Walsh, who came from Clonakilty.
If we believe in the future of the agricultural industry, there must be great emphasis on practical agricultural education for young farmers. This brings me to the point of this motion on the Adjournment. The recent rationalisation changes have been announced by Teagasc, but the demand for places in Clonakilty Agricultural College is greater than ever and there is major concern among farming families that the college will not be able to accommodate that demand. The college took in 76 new applicants last year from a total application list of upwards of 100. Already this year there are approximately 130 applications with an expectation that this will rise to 200 before the college term begins.
The rub is that on current indications there will be fewer teaching staff next year than this year. There will be a principal, five teaching staff plus two technicians and one job-sharing technician to cover the college’s entire student population. The issue is whether the extra demand can be accommodated which is why I am making this special plea to the Minister of State. I am not interested in the business of status but rather the practical nuts and bolts on behalf of the farm families and the parents of young applicants who are already fretting about the problem and concerned that their family members, the young farmers of the future, will not be able to go there.
This issue was recently addressed in the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and when the chairman of Teagasc, Professor Gerry Boyle, gave evidence it was clear that his heart was in the right place. In seeking to assure Deputy Creed, who raised the issue, he stated that no student would be turned away because of the rationalisation exercise. He described Clonakilty as the regional educational centre for the south west and spoke about the progress that would be made there. He made it clear that what is being done in Clonakilty would enhance the stature of the college. It is not the stature that I am concerned about. I am concerned for the farm families and what will happen to the young farmers of the future.
The bigger demand is probably attributable to the lack of apprenticeships and jobs from builders etc. There is more of an emphasis on farming for the future. In a way we are back to the future. I firmly believe that farming will be one of the engines from the point of view of exports and otherwise that will help to lift us out of the current recession. It would be totally shortsighted to ignore the pool of young farmers in the country — of course I am mainly concerned about the south west and the dairy industry — and not give them the practical agricultural education they need. We are talking about an investment in the future. I make this special plea to the Minister of State not to turn them away.
The current teacher complement will not be able to cope with the demand. Action is needed now so that the college can make the necessary plans to accommodate the demand, if not in full, as far as possible. While the Minister of State’s heart will probably be in the right place, I want a commitment that will allow the college to plan the next academic year to accommodate the great demand now pressing in on top of it.
Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Deputy Tony Killeen): Gabhaim buíochas leis an Teachta Jim O’Keeffe as ucht an méid atá ráite aige agus as ucht deise a thabhairt dom freagra a thabhairt ar an ábhar tábhachtach seo.
The Government fully recognises the importance of agricultural education and training for the development of the agriculture and food industries. This is reflected in the commitment, contained in the programme for Government, to “invest in our Agricultural Colleges and restructure the environment through which they are supported”. Due to its important role in supporting the Government’s strategy for the agrifood sector, Teagasc receives substantial Exchequer resources each year to enable it to provide first-class training, research and advisory services. The total funding provided by the Department to Teagasc for non-capital purposes has increased significantly in recent years, from €82 million in 2000 to an average of €137 million in the years 2007 to 2009. While this year’s allocation to Teagasc of €132 million is inevitably somewhat less than the previous two years, due to the necessary curtailment of public finances, it is nevertheless a substantial amount and an indication of the Government’s continuing commitment to supporting the agrifood sector and recognition of the important role of Teagasc in that regard.
I am glad that in recent years we have also been able to provide very substantial extra funding to Teagasc for capital development purposes. This has enabled Teagasc to commence a major capital investment programme with a particular focus on the development of research centres of excellence.
Currently, Teagasc delivers its education and training programme through a network of eight colleges, 80 local Teagasc centres and the Teagasc e-college. It is, of course, entirely a matter for Teagasc and its board to prioritise its activities and to allocate its resources in accordance with these priorities. In this regard a review of college infrastructure, undertaken for Teagasc by an outside consultancy body, was finalised last year and agreed by the Teagasc authority. Arising from this review the authority will be making decisions on priorities in terms of future capital expenditure.
I understand that Teagasc is fully committed to the development of the college in Clonakilty as a first class educational facility. More than €4 million has been invested in upgrading the student and farm facilities since 2001. Earlier this year the dairy herd from Mellows was transferred to Clonakilty and it is planned to bring the herd up to 200 cows in the near future. It is also planned to carry out a comprehensive applied dairy research programme in conjunction with the Moorepark research centre. This, along with increased utilisation of the facility for extension and demonstration activities, will ensure the viability of Clonakilty and enhance the overall student experience.
I understand that the college currently has a staff complement of five teachers, a principal and three technicians, and that Teagasc is exploring the possibility of redeploying some advisory staff to Clonakilty.
Within the various colleges and at a local level, Teagasc provides a wide range of education and training courses targeted at young people planning to embark on careers in farming, horticulture, in the equine industry or forestry, and adult farmers wishing to acquire a skill set or training in a particular area. Further education and training courses are available in agriculture, horticulture, forestry and horses at the agricultural and horticultural colleges. In addition, higher level education courses in agriculture, horticulture, agribusiness, agricultural mechanisation and equine studies are provided jointly with institutes of technology.
All of Teagasc’s education and training programmes are accredited within the national framework under the National Qualifications Authority of Ireland. I was pleased to see that there was a very significant increase in college enrolments in the current academic year, which augurs well for the future of the Irish agrifood sector. I am sure that Teagasc will ensure that education and training are provided in the most effective and efficient manner in the years ahead. I am satisfied that Teagasc, with the ongoing support of the Department, can deliver through its integrated research, advisory and education and training programmes, the innovation and technology transfer necessary for the sustainable development of the agrifood sector.
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