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At Bank of America (BAC), David Farrell spent his days taking calls from credit-card customers in Ireland. Then came the global financial crisis, and the 40-year-old father of five decided it was time for a career change. In 2008, after five years with the bank, he quit and enrolled at Teagasc, which runs a school at Dublin's National Botanic Gardens college, to study horticulture. It turned out to be a shrewd move: Today the Irish economy is reeling, jobs are scarce in financial services, and one of the few sectors that shows any promise is agriculture. "There's a resurgence in producing food," says Farrell. "It will become something people not only want to do but may have to do."
Plenty of other Irish workers are thinking along the same lines. Farrell's college program in Dublin turned away 250 students seeking places in its agriculture-related courses last month. Enrollment for courses at Teagasc climbed to 1,128 this year, 45 percent more than in 2007, before the economy collapsed. The government agency teaches students such skills as growing organic food at sites across Ireland and supports the country's agribusiness sector.
Promoting food exports is a major priority for Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen's government. Ireland's gross domestic product doubled in size in the decade through 2007 and has since shrunk about 15 percent after the real estate bubble burst. The government, struggling with bailing out banks and slashing public spending, is counting on food exporters, including Kerry Group and Glanbia, to help spark an economic revival. "Farming and agrifood were totally lost during the boom. It just wasn't seen as sexy compared with property and financial services," says Jim Power, chief economist at Friends First, a Dublin financial-services firm. "That's changing: High-value export industries like food are the future for us now."
After falling 12 percent in 2009, Irish food and animal exports are up 5.4 percent during the first half of 2010, according to Ireland's Central Statistics Office. About 150,000 people work in farming, still the country's biggest indigenous industry after 20 years of decline. Agriculture now accounts for about 2 percent of the Irish economy, compared with about 16 percent in the late 1970s.
Global investors have warmed up to Irish food stocks. The share price of Kerry Group, Ireland's largest food company, has risen 47 percent in the past two years. Dairy food company Glanbia has seen its stock price increase 13 percent over the same period. Unemployment has more than doubled to 13.8 percent since the peak of the "Celtic Tiger" years in 2007 and has reached 18 percent in the country's rural southeast, according to the latest government numbers.
During the boom years, construction, which accounted for about a quarter of the economy in 2006, drew agricultural workers off the land, says John Bryan, president of the Irish Farmers' Assn., Ireland's largest farmers' lobby. (Bryan is a beef farmer who oversees 230 acres in Kilkenny in southeast Ireland.) No more. "This year is the first I'd say in about 14 or 15 years that you'd have people calling to the farm to see if there is any seasonal work going," says Paul Kehoe, 34, who farms about 380 acres in Country Wexford with about 120 cows and 200 sheep.
Another factor working in agriculture's favor is the decline in land prices. Developers pushed up prices to more than €58,400 ($81,140) a hectare in 2006, the highest in Europe, according to the National Institute for Regional and Spatial Analysis, citing data from property agent Savills. Last year, farmland prices around Dublin fell 57 percent, while the average price paid in the rest of the country declined 43 percent.
Ireland's tough economic circumstances have changed perceptions about the country's agricultural sector. "Farmers have become a respected profession again," says Power, the economist. "And there's nothing else out there."
The bottom line: The government is counting on food exports to revive the economy and help lower Ireland's double-digit unemployment rate.