Áine Collins TD speech on Leader Funding

Our local TD Áine Collins delivered this speech yesterday in the Dail:
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this topic as it is very important. I ask the Minister to consider re-opening funding for the agrifood and horticulture sectors under Leader funding. This comes under Axis 1 of Leader funding, which currently only supplies funding for bakery products. It is important that we look again at this issue. The provision of Leader funding is about supporting rural businesses and communities and it seems ridiculous that in a country that promotes itself on the quality of its agricultural products does not support local food businesses. I hope the Minister of State can address the issue of how Ireland’s operational programme for rural development can allow funding to be made available to small, micro and medium food businesses under the Leader programme.

The general consensus among Leader groups is that there is a huge demand for seed funding to produce food products, that there are great markets for them at home and that they have huge export potential. The Government’s emphasis on exploiting our reputation as a producer of high quality food products could be converted into enormous incentives to create jobs but lack of sector funding is holding up the process. Farming is doing well and, in fairness to farmers, they are the first to reinvest their profits locally and look at the quality of their produce and adding value to them. This will be particularly important in view of the abolition of quotas in 2015. Helping the sector would result in the creation of jobs and be of real benefit to the economy and the balance of payments.

It is essential that Leader groups have quality funding to encourage small-scale agrifood businesses. Hugely successful brands such as Clonakilty Blackpudding products and small cheese companies have developed during the years with Leader programme encouragement and funding. It was under the previous Administration that the funding ceased and I know the Government will take a different view. In my own area of Cork north west a number of really good small businesses produce high quality food produce, but they need help in expanding their offerings and looking at new markets. IRD Ballyhoura manages Leader funding. It told me this morning that huge numbers of people came to it for funding, but it cannot help these applicants, one of whom is McCarthy’s Butchers which supplies products to Harrods of London and Selfridges, yet it cannot get money for a local unit to expand its produce. If the business was based in Cork city, Cork City Council would provide a food unit. This is a big issue. O’Leary’s Butchers in Millstreet has won many awards for its venison sausages, but it cannot get support either. There are real job opportunities available. We must, therefore, look at this issue. In Kanturk Ardrahan Farmhouse Cheese which is hand produced from the milk of the farm’s cows has won many awards, placing it in the top three at the world cheese championships in four events in recent years. Charleville cheese and Newmarket cheese are also well known products, the production of which could be expanded.

Food production is important and world demand for food produce is steadily growing. The potential of this sector was highlighted over the weekend by the visit of the Chinese Vice President. There is huge potential for Ireland to win supply contracts into China in future years. With 450,000 people unemployed, we need to increase the level of job creation. Some 70% of new jobs will be provided by new businesses. This is where we need to look and there are real possibilities in the food production sector.

The horticulture and food sectors are closely connected. In my own town of Millstreet I tried to establish a community project to grow lettuces in polytunnels. Land was donated, but we were unable to get funding from the local Leader company. A local jobs opportunity with a good market was lost as a result. I am sure the same story could be told in every town in the country. I understand the Leader companies have money available, but do not have projects into which to put the money. I, therefore, ask the Minister of State to look at this matter in a favourable manner.

Read the rest of the debate with Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government (Deputy Fergus O’Dowd) on the oireachtas.ie.

In fact Áine has been asking quite a number of questions to her own ministers, though they have mostly been in the form of written questions – see the full list with answers and responses again on oireachtas.ie

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