ICMSA@70: 'Meeting the challenges head-on'

Irish dairy farming has changed hugely over the past 70 years. ICMSA President, Pat McCormack, talks with Aisling Kiernan
ICMSA@70: 'Meeting the challenges head-on'

ICMSA's Frank Wall, addressing a large crowd of fellow Kerry members at a rally in Tralee in 1968.

ICMSA's President, Pat McCormack believes Irish farmers are well placed to meet the challenges ahead despite Brexit impact on the horizon, concerns around the Mercosur trade deal, the often divisive imposition on them with regard to climate change and the potential fallout from the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) reform.

ICMSA is on top of the issues too, says Mr McCormack who was keen to highlight how farmers’ ability to adapt to change was never more evident than after the Covid-19 pandemic hit, when their willingness to embrace the technological advances that ICMSA introduced - thus changing the way in which is does its business forever - shone through.

This move, the president added, “shows how our services continue to evolve to meet the changing needs of farmers and their ability to adapt to that change”.

ICMSA President, Pat McCormack, on his Tipperary farm.
ICMSA President, Pat McCormack, on his Tipperary farm.

“There was no greater change than in 2020; farmers had to embrace technology in order to stay in touch because of the Covid-19 pandemic and the restrictions it brought with it.

“ICMSA embraced that technology and was able to hold its national council meetings as a result.

“The various committee meetings were also held remotely and all of that was a huge leap for the organisation in 2020.” 

Meanwhile, Mr McCormack pointed to the “positive solutions” ICMSA is focused on and ensuring that the voice of Ireland’s dairy and beef farmers are heard ‘loud and clear’ through policy formation around the farming and agri-food sectors.

He was also focused on creating the necessary conditions to encourage more interaction and communication from members, and all of this fell into place, it seems, when the move to technology became a reality for ICMSA members because of Covid-19.

“It’s not easy to bring one hundred people together virtually but with cooperation, training and understanding all of that was achieved,” Mr McCormack continued.

“It also meant that members from all over the country could participate in meetings and communicate with each other without facing into two or three hour journeys each way.” The ICMSA president - who has been in situ since December 2017 - also highlighted the importance of EU Covid-19 support packages that have come Ireland’s way over the last few months.

It was never as important as it is now, he added, “to support local”.

“Nobody anticipated Covid-19 nor its consequences from a financial point of view,” Mr McCormack said.

“On the back of that, what we need to do now as a nation is to support local in the months ahead and stimulate our small companies and individuals who are running businesses to keep them afloat.

“It is absolutely imperative that we keep rural Ireland afloat and vibrant to provide security for the generations ahead as well as for ourselves.” 

September 1968, ICMSA pickets outside Government Buildings, Merrion Street, Dublin. Picture shows Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers Association pickets from Ballylanders, Co. Limerick: Charles Bailey; Patrick O'Donnell; Sam Upton and Liam Dinneen.
September 1968, ICMSA pickets outside Government Buildings, Merrion Street, Dublin. Picture shows Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers Association pickets from Ballylanders, Co. Limerick: Charles Bailey; Patrick O'Donnell; Sam Upton and Liam Dinneen.

On the dairy front, McCormack says ICMSA is as relevant now as it was in the days when milk quotas were to the fore.

In fact he served as chairman of the Dairy Committee from December 2009 right up to the abolition of milk quotas in 2015.

“The organisation was very relevant during that time, whether it was guys with flexi-milk or guys dealing with TB that were looking for quota.

“But equally I’d like to think that we have been as relevant since the abolition of quotas and focusing on expansion, market and ultimately on where the premium of our product lies.” But, of course, it’s that premium and the quality of the product being produced that is at the very core of many of the challenges on Irish farms.

‘It is hugely challenging because obviously we want to see the premium back with the primary producer,” he continued.

“In dairy there has been huge expansion and a lot of money has been invested by both farmers and on their behalf in ‘stainless steel’ because ultimately that money is coming out of the c/lr.

“We have seen in recent time with Ornua index adjustments that there is significant debt out there and ICMSA needs to remain relevant so we can ensure that the primary producer is getting a fair price for their product.” So, what achievements has ICMSA had during Mr McCormack’s tenure as president?

Some of the large attendance at the ICMSA organised meeting on the decline on milk prices and farm incomes held in Mallow, Co Cork. Pic: Patrick Casey
Some of the large attendance at the ICMSA organised meeting on the decline on milk prices and farm incomes held in Mallow, Co Cork. Pic: Patrick Casey

Participating in last year’s beef talks at Ag House and coming out with results was one, says Mr McCormack.

“In my time as president one of the ICMSA’s greatest achievements was to participate in the beef talks and to come out with 0- and 4+ as part of the Quality Assurance (QA) bonus scheme.

“We would feel that the dairy herd has a significant part to play in the beef industry here in Ireland; 56% of the kill comes from the dairy herd and the UK - which is our largest single market - is supplied by cattle from the dairy herd.

“To get the recognition of those animals was quite an achievement given that there were a lot of farm organisations - newly established and otherwise - that wouldn’t have had the same interest in the cattle coming from the dairy herd.” Mr McCormack also pointed to the threat posed by Mercosur - the EU and Mercosur states Argentina, Brazil Paraguay and Uruguay, reached a political agreement for an ambitious, balanced and comprehensive trade agreement on June 28, 2019 - to the Irish beef sector.

As a result, the potential for cheaper south American beef to flood the UK market remains high, bringing with it concerns around subsequent impact on Irish beef being exported into the UK.

Mr McCormack says that while it certainly poses a threat, there is an urgent need for consumers to become more aware of production standards in non-EU countries.

“Mercosur is a huge threat but people need to be aware of standards in the different jurisdictions and become more balanced in their expectations,” he added.

“You can’t expect the Irish and European dairy farmers - whether it’s dairy or beef - to produce a top quality environmentally friendly product where animal welfare is to the fore and then compete with these barrons that will come in through the Mercosur countries.

“So, there needs to be a huge degree of consistency from the consumer because unfortunately - as primary producers - we are probably getting a price that we got 30/35 years ago.” 

ICMSA members on the Inter Agency Fodder Committee, set up to help farmers save sufficient fodder for winter. Photo: Michael Scully
ICMSA members on the Inter Agency Fodder Committee, set up to help farmers save sufficient fodder for winter. Photo: Michael Scully

Such changes over those years have seen “beef farmers squeezed out of the system of beef production and dairy farmers increasing their stock”, ICMSA’s president says.

“Dairy farmers are now having to produce a lot more product to have the same income because the margin isn’t there.

“That is not sustainable and the consumer needs to become more aware of that.

“You can’t have a sustainable environment if you don’t have sustainable producers.

“And a producer has to be economically sustainable so they can stimulate the various elements that are required to be environmentally sustainable in the first instance.

“A quality product comes at a cost and it’s as simple as that.

“The vast majority of farming in Ireland is based on the family farm model where food is produced as close to eco-friendly as is possible.

“This compares greatly to some of our global counterparts who engage in intensive farming systems.

“The animals are grass fed in Ireland and it really is only in recent times that we have begun to capitalise on that.

“Hopefully we will get a PGI status in the months and years ahead so we will be able to fully capitalise on that.”

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