THIS is the fifth successive Irish Examiner/ICMSA farm survey and we are proud of our role in putting before the public and policymakers what is now acknowledged as the most in-depth and interesting snapshot of what farmers are thinking during a period in which national media is focused on them — the National Ploughing Championships.
I hope — and believe — that this year’s results will show a sector determined to build on our natural sustainability and technical excellence and one that is, moreover, reasoned and reasonable in its opinions and conclusions. But also one that is facing real flux and change and desperately needs some fixed positions and stability from which to move what is Ireland’s biggest indigenous economic sector forward.
Everywhere we look, in every sub-sector of Irish farming, we see that uncertainty and vagueness about what the immediate future holds — some will say that that’s the nature of any business — but farming and primary food is different. By its nature it’s about working or investing today for something next year, or two years, or 30 months.
That means it needs a degree of clarity and certainty above and beyond what normal business requires.
While ICMSA accepts fully that there are circumstances and political considerations that are obviously outside our ability to control them, we also believe firmly that where we have the ability to make matters clear, where we have the ability to give people certainty, where we have the ability to put a shape on our own affairs, then we very definitely should be doing just that.
A perfect opportunity to put a shape on the price and income volatility that is relentlessly damaging our family farm system will present itself in three weeks when Finance Minister Pascal Donohoe will present his budget.
ICMSA has repeatedly highlighted the absolute need to move past the boom/bust cycle that has farmers — specifically our flagship dairy farmers — going from a situation where they went a year receiving a milk price that was actually below the cost of producing the milk in 2015/16 to the Teagasc income projections of a few weeks ago that saw dairy incomes at relatively healthy gross (and that must be remembered) figures.
It’s not possible for milk suppliers to run their dairying operations, maintain a family, and plan financially in a context where milk price can swing anywhere from 21c or 22c per litre to 35c or 36c per litre within an 18-month period. How can you decide if you want to invest? How can you even think about servicing a loan?
But this is something within our control and we have the means of curbing that destructive price and income volatility.
ICMSA has submitted a Farm Management Deposit Scheme to Mr Donohoe that we have reason to believe has been studied with some detail and which, we believe, will substantially address these wild swings that are becoming more pronounced and which are, year on year, making it progressively much more difficult to stay farming.
The scheme will allow farmers to put aside monies in a Government-supervised and regulated fund in good years which can then be drawn down and used in the bad years that inevitably follow.
The scheme would be completely tax compliant and open from the Revenue point of view while being tax efficient from the farmer’s standpoint. We met the minister last week on just this and we have to believe that we’ve made the case as strongly as was possible — we certainly have spared no effort in getting the message across that where we have the means to address specific problems then it is incumbent upon us to do that.
We’ll learn in three weeks’ time whether logic and fairness have won the argument and we — and every farmer in Ireland — sincerely hope that is the case.
There is one other area where ICMSA believes that we must speak up now because the stakes are too high to risk silence being misinterpreted as indifference.
Our centuries old and multibillion-euro food trade with the UK must continue on the present tariff-free and completely open basis. That has to be a given in these negotiations and, in fairness to all parties, there does appear to be a willingness to position it as such — for the present, at any rate.
But ICMSA has had recent occasion to openly challenge a prominent French farm leader who stated publicly that French farmers would not be able to accept an open border between north and south over which non-EU foods could travel.
It is our opinion that it is now necessary for Ireland to signal that tariff-free status of our food trade with the UK is non-negotiable and furthermore that Ireland — and the European Commission — must forbid any circumstances in which our food trade with the UK is, in any sense, held hostage by another member state(s) seeking, for instance, freedom of movement and residence in the UK of the type the British government has indicated that it intends to continue extending to Irish citizens.
We are not saying that this is likely but even the possibility must be ruled out.
These are huge questions that must be faced and answered. In the meantime, please call into us during the Ploughing Championships at Stand 266 on Row 11 with any farm-related queries you might have.
- John Comer is ICMSA president