Fighting for real change for farmers

Denis Lehane talks to Noel Fitzpatrick who says the CAP is anti-competitive and farmers must call for real reform.

NOEL Fitzpatrick is a 37-year-old farmer from Reenascreena, in west Cork. You may have seen him when he spoke as a concerned farmer on a recent RTÉ Prime Time programme, dealing with CAP reform.

He is married to Isabelle, and they have three children — Cillian, aged 11, Evan, aged eight, and Eloise, is nearly two.

The Fitzpatricks milk about 50 cows.

The herd comprises of British Friesian, MRI and MRI crosses, they also finished 50 beef cattle last year.

Isabelle is French and they initially lived in France for three and a half years, before returning to Ireland a little over a decade ago.

“We lived in the Loire Valley, 70km east of Nantes,” Noel explains, “I worked on a farm and I also worked in a cheese plant where my wife worked. On the farm, we were offered the possibility of a farm partnership in a system they call ‘GAEC’, which most French farms now operate.

“Our circumstances changed, however, and we came back here to Ireland in September 2002.”

So what has life been like for you as a farmer back here in Ireland, I enquire?

“I enjoy being a farmer, as you are responsible for your own decisions. If you mess up, you have no one to blame but yourself.

“Also, time passes quickly on the land, boredom is never an issue. When I worked in the factory in France, I used to wonder would the shift ever end, I would be constantly watching the clock.

“On a farm, time does not matter, there is always something interesting and different to do.

“Because of the nature of farming, in that it can be a family affair, I also get a great opportunity to work with my father, my brother and my young lads, and I find this is a real bonus.”

Clearly Noel loves his life as a farmer and unlike many who believe size in farming is all that matters, Noel has a different outlook. He values the family life and the family farm.

“I feel it is important to keep Ireland’s family farm model, because in many ways, it has defined what rural Ireland is all about. And most importantly of all, I believe it works.

“If we had no family farmers, would we have small schools, villages or towns?

“Farm families have survived through the worst of times, and it is testament to their resilience that many of them are still there. Thankfully, our attachment to land is still strong.

“I believe that small and medium sized family farms, when farming on a level playing field, offer the most robust food production system a country could have.

“Most larger farms carry significant overhead costs, for example, large borrowings, and most also need to fund wages.

“And with profits or subsidies in the years ahead not guaranteed, we know from other businesses that scale can have its major downside.

“For example, in dairying, it probably would take 60 to 80 cows to pay a person working on the farm.

“So a farmer working on his own with, say 60 to 80 cows, could actually earn the same as a farmer with a 150-cow herd who has a wage bill to factor in.”

On the Prime Time programme, Noel was a strong voice for those farmers who have had to cope over the past 15 years with an inadequate single farm payment, bringing an alternative message to representatives of the main farmer organisations on the TV show.

What are Noel’s views on the CAP?

“The present payment model is based on what could only be described as historical data at this stage, it dates back to the years 2000 to 2002.

“We are now involved in CAP reform, and surely the word reform means to change or evolve. So where is the evolution?

“Many things have changed in Ireland since 2000, but not the single farm payment.

“The criteria that were used for the issuing of single farm payment back then are now terribly outdated and flawed, I believe.

“Payments were paid on all units of production, which obviously meant the money went to those who were already well established.

“The last time around, many farmers lost out simply because they were not vocal enough about their situation, they need to be this time.

“At present, those who were farming well during those reference years still retain their payments. And for those well-established farmers, surely the need for the big payment should be redundant by now.

“If you are not profitable after over 10 years of large EU payments, when will you become profitable? Many new entrants to farming, and young farmers who have little by way of a single payment, cannot possibly compete for land, cattle with those on the receiving end of large payments. It’s anti-competitive.

“I know one young farmer from Roscommon who has a payment of €3,000 for 30 suckler cows. He farms on 50 acres, and dearly wants to keep going. But he needs a significant rise in his payment if he is to stay in farming. Do we want to lose people like this?

“Up to this point in the CAP reform debate, we have not yet discussed what we want to achieve in terms of farm policy for the years ahead. We need to open up this debate.

“I’m a member of the Farm Family Rights Group, and we are calling for a fairer distribution of EU funds this time.

“EU officials have told us that payments should be decoupled from production to create a level playing field, and we propose a front loaded payment on the first 50 to 80 acres.

“A set payment on a specific amount of acres and a reduced payment on the remaining land, something similar to REPS. To qualify for this payment, the department could set stocking rates according to land type.

“Fianna Fáil’s agriculture spokesman Éamon Ó Cuív believes our plan has merit, and although his proposals differ in ways from ours, still at least, it has got a debate going.

“Many who lost out the last time are reluctant to say so publicly, but they are not alone, as we have met many farmers around the country, young and old, who feel deeply left down by the main farm organisations over the past years, with the ending of REPS, the suckler scheme and reductions in disadvantaged area scheme.

“The Farm Family Rights group was founded by Donie Shine from Mallow, and I would not be involved but for the enthusiasm that he shows for family farming.

“He has fought for fairness in Irish farming for the last 20 years, and I can safely say that but for him, there would be no discussion on the issue of single payments in Ireland.

“To paraphrase Colonel Kurtz from the film Apocalypse Now, our troubles here in this land would soon be over if we had two platoons of Donie Shines.

“ I am honoured to call him one of my friends and we are effectively the only group fighting for real change.”

* The group’s next meeting will be held in the Parkway hotel, Dunmanway tomorrow night at 8.30pm. Munster MEPs Sean Kelly, Phil Prendergast and Brian Crowley will attend.

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