A future for the middling farmer

THE middling farmer is centre stage in new ideas circulating at the Ploughing.

As the industry digests the Food Harvest 2020 report, and prepares for changes in EU agricultural policy after 2013, a route midway between organic and industrial scale farming is being promoted as a sustainable competitiveness way for Ireland.

Experts from University College Dublin recently explained how this route can be profitable for farmers, providing what consumers want, environmentally OK, able to cope with predicted climate change, and energy efficient.

They said money will be taken away from the Common Agricultural Policy, but Ireland can make a case to the EU for diverting to an “agriculture-of-the-middle.”

This term comes from the US, where efforts are under way to save disappearing mid-scale farms and agri-food enterprises which cannot successfully market bulk commodities, nor sell directly to consumers.

Some of the more controversial elements in the UCD plan are big talking points at the Ploughing this week – such as their questioning Ireland’s dependence on grass, as climates change, and if farmers can survive when there is free trade in agriculture.

One of Ireland’s foremost agri-experts has been presenting the new middle-ground agriculture proposal – Liam Downey, ex head of Teagasc, ERAD, and Foras Forbartha, now attached to UCD.

He believes it offers the best prospect to all Irish cattle and cereal farmers, and the majority in dairy farming, who cannot achieve the high level of expansion expected when EU milk quotas are scrapped.

Reducing farming costs is the key to profits for farmers in the new model proposed by the UCD team.

This could be done by raising feed conversion efficiency, while controlling man-made diseases such as infertility, mastitis and lameness, which are increasing exponentially all over the world, at “astronomical” cost.

“If we go for cows capable of producing 3,000 gallons, members can take it from me that we will have higher disease costs and pollution costs,” warned Downey.

“If we are to overcome the problem of production-related diseases, we must give cows more digestible fibre. This means we must have greater diversity of species in our pastures. We have a monoculture now called rye grass, but this does not meet the cows’ requirements for digestible fibre.”

As well as calling for diverse pastures, Downey challenges current Teagasc policies, questioning the “extremes in seasonality” in its cattle and dairy blueprints.

“That is what we in Ireland do, we push things to the hilt,” he said.

On CAP funding, he warned, “We have a tendency in Ireland to go to Brussels with the begging bowl. I am afraid that is what we will do again, but it will not succeed this time.”

Dr Gordon Purvis, part of the UCD team, says most EU countries will not be able to compete with big international producers in a globalised market driven only by price competitiveness. “That is a no win game.”

According to the UCD team, two types of agriculture will develop. One will be a high-tech, bio-tech and GMO style agriculture, which will supply the large volume of food that people will need, because they will starve otherwise. “We will have another type of agriculture for people with discretionary income, and this will be something bigger than organic agriculture.”

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