InternationalYear of FamilyFarming needs a reality check

So 2014 is the UN International Year of Family Farming. Meaning what, exactly?

On the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation website dedicated to the topic, there’s a photo competition where you can vote for your favourite family farming photograph. The images portray an image of happy families working in scenic landscapes where the weather is always pleasant.

But what about the real picture? The low incomes, the unpaid family labourers, the farm fatalities involving family members — there’s no place for these realities on this pin-board of positivity.

Minister Coveney recently noted that it is estimated that on 75% of farms, either the farmer and/ or spouse has another source of off-farm income, be it from employment, pensions or other social welfare payments. The Teagasc National Farm Survey figures for 2013 explain why. Suckler, sheep and beef incomes on family farms average €9,000-€11,000; less than the dole in many cases. The family may own the farm, but the farm cannot sustain the family.

Farm accidents and fatalities are the dark side of family farming — the death of the farmer can have a devastating effect, with those left behind perhaps choosing between maintaining an ailing enterprise or selling their family home.

Maybe we’re painting a bleak picture here, but it’s closer to reality than the softly-filtered, staged images on the FAO website. The family farm is an enterprise worth maintaining, but how are photo competitions, conferences and awards going to do this? Of course, Government and EU will point to the level of financial subsidy available through the CAP.

For sure, €1.2bn in annual Single Farm Payments and a rural development package worth some €313m per annum from Brussels, along with a further 46% of exchequer funding, are not to be sneezed at.

Nonetheless, there is an uneasy feeling that EU policymakers maintain a CAP which supports the big operations more than the family farm. In the end, we have a maximum payment of some €200,000 but many farms have to survive on €5,000 in CAP payments. These are typically the farms which grew to depend on REPS payments which often doubled their total support package. Now that’s gone and the new GLAS package is not a realistic replacement.

The problem is that nobody seems willing or able to deal with the key problem which is that greedy retailers have gradually eroded a sustainable price for basic farm products such as meat, dairy and veg. Farmers feel that meat processors, for example, have actively coalesced with this process in using every opportunity to drive down farmgate price. Meanwhile farmers are told to get more efficient as if they are solely to blame.

Perhaps we can’t swim against the tide but the family farm needs to feel that Government and EU are on their side, at least. Without going into detail, that means ensuring that live exports of store cattle to Northern Ireland, the UK, Europe or further afield are not hindered.

It means having transparency over the share of profits from farm products, and fair prices to family farmers to reflect the work they do.

In the year of the family farm, it’s time to ensure that there is a sense of fair play for all farm products and all farm families.


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