The Irish Examiner ICMSA Farming Poll has revealed a lot about the post-Brexit Irish farming scene. News and analysis by Noel Baker.
Almost 90% of farmers believe Brexit has or will have a negative impact on their livelihoods, according to an Irish Examiner/ICMSA opinion poll.
As the 85th National Ploughing Championships get under way in Screggan near Tullamore in Co Offaly today, the national poll shows farmers are already deeply concerned about the possible ramifications of the UK’s decision to leave the EU, even though the British government has yet to push ahead with negotiations.
One third of those surveyed said Brexit has already had an effect on farming here, while another 38% believe it will impact on farming in the future.
Another 15% of those questioned said it had already had an impact and would again into the future.
Larger farmers, in particular, expressed concern about what Britain’s break from the EU might mean, while fears about the aftermath of Brexit was common across farming families that have an off-farm income and those that do not, and across all sectors of farming.
Just this month, economist Colm McCarthy told the Agricultural Science Association that a ‘hard’ Brexit would damage the food sector, while the president of the Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers Association (ICMSA), John Comer, said there was “a huge level of anxiety about the possible implications of Brexit”.
Regarding future negotiations on what shape Brexit will take and its impact on agriculture, Mr Comer said: “There’s going to be a lot of hard bargaining and we can only be sure of one thing — we’d have been better off if the UK had voted to remain within the EU.”
Those fears are reflected in our opinion poll, which shows:
Younger farmers appear marginally less likely than older farmers to think that Brexit will reduce prices — 68% of farmers under 35 believe Brexit will result in a drop in prices, as opposed to 72% of farmers aged 45 to 64.
Tillage farmers seem to be the slightly most sanguine about the potential effects of Brexit: for example, 21% of tillage farmers surveyed do not believe that Brexit will reduce agricultural profitability, compared with 9% of dairy farmers and 8% of livestock farmers. However, even here, 46% of tillage farmers are firmly of the belief that Brexit will prove bad for business.
The fear of the unknown is perhaps more obvious in the views of those polled than a conviction that Brexit has already caused damage.
On whether Brexit has reduced prices already, more than half of those in every demographic — across all age groups, average farm size and principle activity — agreed that it had, with a similar finding on whether Brexit had already reduced profitability.
As to how Brexit would affect individual farm plans, farmers with larger farms are less likely to believe that will happen. While 34% of farmers with 120 or more acres say they do not expect to alter their plans as a result of the UK’s decision, just under 22% of smaller farmers expect to continue as before.
Similarly, those farmers with larger holdings consider themselves less likely to have to cancel an expansion or an investment because of fears over Brexit — 28% of farmers with holdings of 120 acres or more said they would pull back on investment plans, versus 39% of farmers with holdings of between 80 and 120 acres and 42% of farmers with holdings of 40 acres and under.
Meanwhile, Finance Minister Michael Noonan is to travel to London later this week to hold a bilateral meeting with British chancellor Philip Hammond on the impact of Brexit.
This will be the first one-on-one meeting between the two men since Mr Hammond’s appointment by new British prime minister Theresa May and the vote of the British people to leave the EU on June 23.
Farmers fear the impact of Brexit, and remain steadfast in their widespread support for the EU.
Just 14% of respondents said they would vote to leave the EU if a referendum on the issue was held, while that number expands to 30% only in a situation where EU support for farmers were no longer available — yet, even then, 55% of farmers would prefer to stay in the EU.
Farmers without an off-farm income are more likely to favour of leaving the EU than those who do have an off-farm job, but even then almost three-quarters of respondents are opposed.
In the event that farm supports would be removed, 38% of tillage farmers and 22% of larger farmers would vote strongly in favour of leaving the EU, with dairy farmers least likely to want to leave.
ICMSA president John Comer said: “Most people would not find this level of farmers support for the EU surprising, but I’m very happy to see that the confusion and negativity engendered by the Brexit debate did not cross the Irish Sea.
“ICMSA and Irish farmers have always kept our eye on the prize of EU membership.
“We know and accept that it’s not perfect and on several issues — most notably, the deregulation and non-supervision of supply chain margins and overregulation of farming — ICMSA has consistently complained on these and other questions and lobbied long and hard.
“But the idea that, in an increasingly globalised environment, with environmental issues becoming more and more pressing, that it is either possible or desirable to act as a single national player to any influential degree is, in our opinion, delusional,” said Mr Comer.
“The fact of the matter is that successive UK Governments never demonstrated any particular concern for their own farming sector — much less that of the wider EU farming sector.”
Brexit might have been a political and economic earthquake, but for Irish farmers, it seems to have taken on a different identity: Project Fear.
We are into Donald Rumsfeld territory, it seems — known knowns, known unknowns, and all that. The results of the Irish Examiner ICMSA opinion poll shows that many believe Brexit has already impacted on profitability, and they can’t be wrong.
According to ICMSA president, John Comer: “The very first thing is obvious: the UK takes over 40% of our total agri-food exports; it is, by far, our biggest single market. The eventual [Brexit] arrangement has to recognise the supreme importance of retaining Ireland’s ability to sell our food into the UK on a tariff-free, free-movement basis.
“We have already seen our food exports increase in price by between 10% and 15% due to the fall in sterling relative to the euro. That’s going to cost us a great deal of money and it won’t be anywhere near offset by cheaper input imports from the UK.”
Dr Kevin Hanrahan, agricultural economist with Teagasc, said the opinion poll results showed people were still shocked by Britain’s decision to leave the EU, even though the full ramifications of Brexit have yet to be felt.
“The primary impact to date is on the currency side,” he said, referring to the weaker pound which has meant sales to the UK of Irish cattle, sheep, milk and other products have brought in less money.
However, he said pessimism in general among farmers had found a bedfellow in concerns over Brexit.
“Most of the on-farm investment in Ireland is on dairy farms and they are having a pretty poor year,” he said, adding that following the lifting of milk quotas in 2015, many farmers attempted to grow their way out of any first-year difficulties — a pattern that is harder to repeat two years running.
According to Mr Comer, while it is important that farmers don’t always assume the worst, it’s also crucial not to indulge in “wishful thinking or delusions” regarding what Brexit might mean in future.
He said his organisation would be pushing hard at the Brexit Forum established by the Department of Agriculture on particular issues, including the need to “park” ongoing trade negotiations around TTIPS (on trade between Europe and the United States) or Mercosur (regarding South America).
“It is nonsensical to proceed with these until the Brexit has been fully worked out and we can then begin — if we want to — on the basis of 27 member states, not 28,” he said.
“British and Irish farmers operate to generally the same standards of production, food safety and environmental sustainability — that must continue and the EU must insist that no competitive advantage accrues to the UK by relaxation of those standards. In the same way, member states must now undertake to replace any shortfall in CAP caused by the withdrawal of the UK’s contribution.”
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