IFA must be ready for both the challenges and opportunities

Q&A: Eddie Downey
IFA must  be ready for both the challenges and opportunities

The challenges facing farmers and Irish agriculture have never been greater. The overhang from the fodder crisis and inflexibility of our banking sector, along with strong input prices, have led to tighter margins and reduced incomes.

We have seen how budgetary cuts over the last three years, and reductions in EU funded schemes, impacted on farm incomes, while at the same time, the supermarkets and multiples have maintained their margins and profits at the expense of farmers.

But there are also a number of positives coming through for Irish agriculture in the coming years, mainly driven by the abolition of milk quotas and the Government’s Food Harvest 20/20 vision for agriculture.

I strongly believe that farmers and IFA need to be ready to meet both the challenges and the opportunities, and as a result, the need for a strong, decisive and experienced IFA President has never been greater. And I believe I have the track record of achievement and the ability built over 20 of experience in key roles in the Association to lead IFA over the next four years.

The priorities for my presidency will be based around the key concerns of farmers and their families. Among these are the demand for fair prices and viable farm incomes; the end to the current punishing inspection regime and the implementation of a new Charter of Rights.

For farmers, particularly those in Munster, the key to getting the best from the end of milk quotes will be changes in succession and land leasing, to facilitate expansion and ensure that land is put to work for active farmers. I look forward to working with Minister Coveney at an early stage to bring forward imaginative schemes to achieve this aim.

I will also work, and bring my experience as chair of the national farm business committee, to ensure that bank credit is freed up to support the growth of the farming sector; stop the ‘Race to the Bottom’ by multiples on prices, and address the issues of farm safety and mental health, so that our farms are healthier and safer places to work.

With your support and No. 1 Vote, I know I can deliver the strong, decisive leadership and real results that farmers want and deserve.

Will every lowland farm in Ireland tend toward milk production over the coming decades? Should special efforts be made to keep the other farm enterprises sufficiently profitable for farmers stay in them?

>>The removal of milk quotas presents a major opportunity for Irish agriculture. We are currently limited in our output and controlled by the world milk price, but we are well placed to take advantage of the increased demand for milk products right across the world.

Some farmers will definitely move towards milk production systems — that is the chosen route for many of our young farmers coming from agriculture college, and we need to encourage them and ensure that they can maximise their output from their farms on that basis.

But some farmers will exit milk production, and they need to be allowed to do that. We need to be sure that every single enterprise out there continues to be profitable, and that we are getting the maximum price for the product from these farms.

What will be the most important elements of implementation of the CAP reform in Ireland.

>>We know where the single farm payment — Pillar One — is going to go now, and we know how it is going to be redistributed. The key element now for the implementation of CAP reform is the need for matching Pillar Two funding so that we can put together a proper REPS type scheme, an upland scheme, a payment for SAC-type areas, and increasing disadvantaged area payments. It is essential that a sucker cow and ewe coupled payment is put in place. All these are absolutely necessary to ensure that the industry stays profitable and reaches the projected targets of Food Harvest 20/20.

Wind turbines are controversial in the midlands. Should all the community benefit economically from them and have a say in where turbines are placed?

>>The community should benefit, but these turbines should be built at a reasonable distance from houses. I have a worry when I see what Westmeath County Council did, when they ruled that these turbines could not be placed on agricultural land. I think to make a decision like that on a blanket basis is wrong — whether you are in favour of or against wind turbines. This kind of restriction is a threat to the future development of our lands, and we need to be sure that restrictions of this kind cannot be imposed again.

There have been big protests against upgrading the electricity grid using overhead pylons. What system do you favour for the grid link project.

>>Firstly, I question the need to do the upgrading that is being proposed at the moment, but if the demand is to be met, then every option has to be looked at. Eirgrid has to come out with a full and transparent costing for undergrounding these cables. I believe when they do that and examine it properly that undergrounding will be the proper option, and it is the option that I favour.

Ireland stands to lose millions in EU payments due to abandonment and farming inactivity in upland areas. What is your recipe for the mountains?

>>In order to maximise the drawdown from Europe into upland areas, the Department of Agriculture needs to put together a proper functional commonage framework plan, which takes into account the individual constraints on each of these upland areas, right across the country. This must be done in consultation with the farmers, to take into account their knowledge and experience in farming these areas for generations. I believe proper funding for these areas will lead to major benefits not just to agriculture but to the tourist industry as well.

What do you see as the main strengths and weaknesses of Irish farming?

>>The main strength is the access to the European market, and the huge potential it gives us for access to consumers of quality food who want full traceability on that food, and which Irish farmers have shown we can deliver.

The weaknesses relate to the retail sector, the strength of the supermarkets and the way they are driving the price of the product down, while leaving very little margin for the producer or even the processors in the system. This is putting enormous and unnecessary pressure on farm families, and we have to rebalance the power in that whole chain.

Another weakness from a farmer’s point of view is the inspection regime that is being imposed on farmers. This must be totally changed, and a proper Charter of Rights put in place to ensure that the stress levels resulting from these inspections are reduced. A further weakness is the lack of finance, as the result of the absence of a functioning banking system, which is putting huge pressure on farm families, and which I will be addressing as a priority as IFA President.

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