DUBLIN // As Ireland grapples with one of the biggest economic crises in its history, its farmers and food producers are bucking the trend of retrenchment and contraction.
Farming - a forgotten profession during the construction boom that fuelled the Celtic Tiger economy - is enjoying a renaissance, with hopes that agricultural output will contribute to export-led economic growth.
The value of Irish agri-produce exports has grown by almost 10 per cent this year compared to 2009, according to the latest figures from the Central Statistics Office, and ambitious plans are afoot to significantly boost dairy and beef output to meet growing global demand for food - projected to increase by 70 per cent by 2050.
"After years of madness in this country when we seemed to think that the only thing that was worth doing was pouring concrete into the ground, we now recognise that there's a new economic reality and we have to identify sectors of the economy to develop," says Jim Power, the chief economist with Friends First financial services firm.
"The agrifood sector … has huge growth potential provided we do it properly and focus on the quality of the product."
With abundant fertile land, a mild climate and plentiful rainwater, Ireland is already one of Europe's largest dairy and beef exporters, home to several global food companies such as Glanbia and Kerry Group, as well as hundreds of artisan-food producers.
A recent government report identified the agrifood and fisheries sector as the country's most important and largest indigenous industry, directly employing 150,000 people - 7.5 per cent of the two million workforce - and contributing €24bn (Dh116bn) to the economy annually.
The report, Food Harvest 2020, wants the annual export value of the farm, food and fisheries sector to grow to €12bn by 2020 - a 42 per cent increase on the 2007-2009 average. It also envisages a staggering 50 per cent surge in milk production and a 20 per cent increase in beef production, with a total of 4,000 new jobs created across the sector.
Ireland is already the largest net exporter of beef in the northern hemisphere, and the fourth largest of the world. One in every five McDonald's hamburgers consumed throughout Europe is made from Irish beef, which is unique in being almost entirely free range and grass fed, unlike the industrial feedlot style production prevalent in many countries.
"Ireland exports 90 per cent of its dairy produce and nine out of 10 beef animals that we produce we also export - that's an asset as we move into a world with scarcer food supplies," says Michael Murphy, markets director at Bord Bia, the Irish Food Board, which develops markets for Irish suppliers.
The ambitious proposal to double milk production levels in the coming decade stems from the planned abolition in 2015 of European Union milk quotas that have constrained production for a quarter of a century.
"The removal of quotas will enable Ireland to increase production from its competitive low-cost grass-based system in response to increasing demand for dairy products and ingredients from milk in a many jurisdictions including China, Middle East and India," says Pat Wall, associate professor of public health at University College Dublin.
The internationally feted handmade cheese manufacturer, Cashel Blue, is one of many artisan food producers targeting exports for growth amid declining Irish sales since the economy went into recession two years ago.
Half of the Tipperary-based company's business is for export, and just last month it opened a cheese dairy that will allow it to more than double production capacity.
Louis Clifton Browne from the company says it is optimistic about plans for export expansion to markets including the UK, Europe, Australia, South Africa, the US and Asia.
"We are very positive. We have carried out this huge expansion and we are putting a huge amount of effort into market building and opening up a lot of new opportunities," he says.
Ireland's drive to boost food and drink exports is accompanied by a surge in interest in agricultural courses run by the state agency, Teagasc, which struggled to find students during the boom years.
The agriculture and food development authority has seen enrolments in its agricultural colleges increase by 70 per cent since 2007, before the economy collapsed. This year its student intake climbed to 1,128 and it turned away 250 applicants.
"Certainly there is a renewed optimism in agriculture at the moment, particularly, with the upcoming ending of the milk quota regime," says Paddy Browne, Teagasc's head of education.
"There is also a growing realisation across the broader economy that in times of economic recession, agriculture, as well as being an 'old reliable,' has increased potential to drive economic growth."
Richie Dollard, 23, is one of many farmers' sons who eschewed agriculture for construction during the boom. At its peak in 2007, the construction sector accounted for almost a quarter of total economic output and 13 per cent of all jobs, an imbalance which came to a spectacular end in 2008 with the collapse of the property bubble.
When Mr Dollard's well-paid work as a carpenter started to dry up in 2008, he decided to study dairy farming with Teagasc. Due to graduate next year, he is already working with his father on their 200-acre farm in county Kilkenny.
To capitalise on the elimination of EU milk quotas, Mr Dollard plans to expand the farm and increase its dairy cattle herd from 100 to 300 in the next five years.
While he earned more money as a carpenter than he makes running the farm with his father, Nicholas Dollard, 57, says he has no regrets about his career change.
"I was working with building contractors when I was 14 and I was probably making more money on building that I am now," he says. "But things will get good. Farming is the best of a bad lot now. I suppose money is tight but if I do as well as my dad, he seems very comfortable."