Kieran Coughlan: Cure for pessimism is an optimistic plan

Last week’s Irish Examiner ICMSA farming opinion poll provided a snapshot of the mood amongst farmers.

Just 60% are optimistic about the future, with over a quarter pessimistic about the future of farming.

We are reminded regularly that the need for food in increasing.

The world population has increased by over a billion people in the short time from the turn of the millennium, to stand at an estimated 7.1 billion in 2013.

Imagine 100 years ago, when the world population was about one quarter of what it is now.

Successive generations of farmers have put the shoulders to the wheel and taken on the responsibility of growing better crops, raising and caring for animals as best they can, adopting new technologies along the way from advances in machinery to crop spraying and fertiliser.

With such a massive increase in population, one would expect that farmers would (if you excuse the pun) be on the pig’s back, with no cause for pessimism.

Instead, pessimism in farming is at a new low in 2016, compared to polls carried out each year since 2013.

Kieran Coughlan: Cure for pessimism is an optimistic plan

With the dawning of a Brexit already under way, and reduced commodity prices for farmers across all main sectors, due to world surpluses, the reality on the ground is that this will most certainly go down as a poor year for farming.

So where has it all gone wrong?

With increasing world demand, why are farmers less well-off now than their counterparts a generation ago or more?

Those removed from farming may take the cynical view that farmers are millionaires (in terms of the value of their property).

But why did the number of farmers in the country decline by more than 220,000 holdings in the past 100 years?

Meanwhile, the majority of new generation farm families (those in the 35-44 year age category) have off-farm work to subsidise their households, because family farms no longer generate enough profits for farm families.

The technological advancement which has enabled the Irish farmer to expand production is the very rod to beat us. Internationally, as farmers collectively have brought on new technologies, from GM cropping, to more productive machinery, and crop-tailored fertiliser programmes, they have been able to produce more and more from the same land bank.

As western Europeans, we have perhaps adapted technologies quicker that others.

An example of this is borne out by figures produced by Enterprise Ireland, showing the average number of cows on Poland’s farms at an astonishingly low figure of five cows per farm.

By contrast, the average number of cows on Irish farms is about 70.

The golden era for Irish farmers was perhaps in the 1960s and 1970s with adoption of silage making, affordable fertilisers, large-scale mechanisation of farming, and accession to the EU market.

By contrast, much of Europe’s Eastern bloc remained starved of finance, and lacked the personal drive that capitalism and individual land ownership brings.

Us Irish farmers have now reached a sort of production plateau, growth now being at a relatively low incremental level.

Third world subsistence farmers have yet to bring on breeding, fertiliser or mechanisation advancements. Growth in food production will come predominantly from their direction, when increasing demand for food in countries with growing populations will create the economic environment to spur on production locally.

So where does this fit in with Irish agriculture and the ‘state of the nation’ as captured in the Irish Examiner ICMSA polls?

Optimism and pessimism are highly correlated with the degree to which we think our farming profits will increase or decrease.

The vast majority of farmers will be presented with their annual accounts (and tax bill) over the coming few weeks.

In the words of Winston Churchill, ‘Never let a good crisis go to waste’.

Let your pessimism for the future cause you to take action now, rather than wait for the worst to happen.

Examine the profitability of your own farming enterprise. How do you compare with others in your sector?

Is there room to improve efficiency of production, or is there room to cut costs?

Should you change enterprise, either in the hope of driving profitability to freeing up time for alternative earnings?

Within our own farm gates, we need to be realistic about the ability of our farms to generate increased profit.

Hoping for a crisis elsewhere, so we can make a profit, doesn’t count as a strategy. The cure for pessimism is an optimistic action plan.

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