IN spite of the rain and the recession, there is optimism among dairy farmers.
With milk quotas due to end in 2015, the race is on to be in a good position when the wall finally comes down.
Gerard Buckley is one of many dairy farmers caught up in the expansion drive. Farming at Laharn, Coachford, Co Cork, Gerard is married to Grett O’Connor, and they have five children — Fiona, Ciara, Johnny, Maggie and Tim.
These days Gerard milks 160 cows, having come from 60 cows just four years ago.
In 2008 Gerard was awarded a Nuffield scholarship, and more recently was a speaker at last year’s Farm Forum during the National Dairy Show in Millstreet.
I asked Gerard how can anyone plan for expansion in the midst of a recession. Surely this is the time for battening down the hatches?
“The best time to expand is in a recession,” he says.
“We all saw what happened when the building industry expanded during the boom.
“When you expand during a recession, things can only get better.”
And what about the banks, I ask, surely there is a problem with accessing finance?
“Well yes, while there might be many difficulties with the banking sector, at least they are now behaving in a responsible fashion.
“I mean, during the height of the Celtic Tiger, if you approached a bank looking for money to purchase a house, they were practically shovelling the money out to you. The banks lacked regulation, and that was a major problem.
“In farming these days, if you are looking for money to expand your business, you will need to have a good, sound, five-year plan. You will have to be able to demonstrate to the bank that you are capable and responsible, that you have the ability to succeed.
“To put it bluntly, if you are not a good farmer with 50 cows, you are certainly not going to be good with 150.
“When it comes to borrowing money, if your plan is sound, you will get the money.”
Accessing funds is not the only hurdle in the way of progress, Gerard also feels that Irish farmers themselves need a change of mind-set.
“I feel there has been a lost generation in Irish farming over the last 25 years, in that there are people who have gone farming who shouldn’t be farming, they don’t have the passion for it, or an interest in it.
“And there were people who would love to be farming, but who didn’t have the opportunity.
“In this country, if you don’t have the background, the opportunity to become a farmer is simply not there.
“This is not the case in other countries. In New Zealand, for instance, there are incentives in place for all who have an interest in farming.
“You might start working on a farm for a wage. Then you could move onto a 50/50 share milking operation, before buying land at a reasonable price and starting farming in your own right.
“And when eventually you come to the stage in your life where you take the back seat, another guy comes in.
“Here in Ireland there has been a ritual in farming of handing it down from father to son. Regardless of the interest in the business.
“Many Irish farmers don’t want to sell, rent or lease land, all they really want to do is hold onto it.”
For the last 25 years, dairy farmers were curtailed by quotas, but in the next few years, all of this will change. Here’s Gerard’s view on expansion.
“When building up a business, the first thing you have to change is to simplify your system. I believe you won’t be able to fund expansion if you don’t.
“A farmer has to become more focused and specialised in specific areas if he of she is to grow the business.
“What you have to start doing is ask yourself what are the things I can do that are the most profitable? What are the areas in the business where I should spend my time?
“In my view, these areas are looking after the livestock, looking after your grass, and looking after your accounts. Contractors should be considered for slurry and silage.”
Gerard also feels that an expansion plan will not work without a good team by your side.
“You cannot possibly succeed on your own. Here on this farm I have been very lucky to have a very capable farm manager, Vicky Kelleher, helping me with the running of the business.
“From vets to accountants, it’s vital that you have a competent team in your corner.
Cash flow is another aspect that has to be considered, according to Gerard: “In any expansion, cash flow will be very tight. And it is only after the first five years into an expansion programme that you will find the situation easing. So it is important to be aware of this.”
For those hoping to start dairy farming from a green field site, Ger has this advice, “Don’t pay too much for land, don’t pay too much for machinery.
“If you were to start on a green field site, put up a state-of-the-art milking parlour and buy all the dairy cattle that you need, you just will not survive. There is no way you could do it.
“Instead, I believe you have to do a bit of renting and build up the stock over time.
“It’s much easier to grow organically. You can grow by 20% every year easy enough. And the bigger you get, the easier it should get.”
And of course, it’s vital not to forget the important things in life.
“At the end of the day, a person’s success is measured by the amount of time he spends with his family and not the number of cows he has.
“You could become the biggest farmer in the country, but if you have missed your kids growing up and if you haven’t had time to look after your health, could you honestly say that you were a success? The number one regret of people on their deathbed is that they didn’t spend more time with their family.”
Even if farmers are ready, I asked Ger does he think the co-ops are up to speed?
“Well, I supply milk to Dairygold, and I think Dairygold will be ready for the increase in milk volume.
“I think Jim Woulfe and the board deserve huge credit for the steps they have taken to prepare for the future without quotas.
“An extensive and comprehensive farming survey was carried out by Dairygold a few months ago, and through this, it was calculated that Dairygold milk suppliers plan to increase total milk supply by 63.5% from 2015 to 2020.
“Guided by these findings, plans are now underway to invest €120 million in Dairygold to cater for this extra volume which is expected.
“I am very confident at this moment that Dairygold will deliver the goods, and that Dairygold have the best interests of farmers at heart.”
But before dairy farmers go dancing into the sunset thinking all will be rosy, Ger has a final word of caution.
“Nothing is guaranteed in this life, and no expansion can be done without some degree of risk.
“If, for instance, you get a high interest rate and bad weather compounded with a bad milk price in any given year, your expansion plan could well be in jeopardy, you could well go broke.
“I suppose that one thing which our parents always did was to keep a year’s income, a lump sum put aside for such an event.
“Going forward into a future where subsidies won’t be as plentiful as they have been, perhaps it might be wise to have such a fund in place for that rainy day,” said Gerard.
And most farmers certainly know enough at this stage about rainy days.
Tour de Munster hits €1m mark in ten-year fundraising history
One thing that the demise of the Celtic Tiger has really demonstrated to us is, to quote the singer Bob Dylan “nobody really gives a damn.”
Yes, if you want to make a difference, you really have to do it yourself.
And this belief in doing something proactive instead of just waiting for it to happen is really what drives fundraising events like the Tour de Munster.
Approximately 150 amateur cyclists are participating in this year’s tour.
The tour kicks off on Aug 9 in Cork city centre, and over the following four days the cyclists will cover a 640 kilometres course through every county in Munster.
All the proceeds from the four-day event go towards Down Syndrome Ireland. Over the past ten years the Tour has raised almost €1m for this very worthy cause.
Gerard and Grett’s seven-year-old son, Johnny, has Down syndrome, and next week, Gerard will once more be forsaking the tractor and taking up the bike for the event.
“Back in 2010, I was just home from a farming trip to South Africa when Grett said that we must go into Cork and shake a bucket in aid of this Tour de Munster cycling event.
“If they are good enough to go cycling for Down Syndrome Ireland, the least we should do is go and support them, she said.
“First of all, I saw all the cyclists, and saw how fit they were.
“And then I saw the camaraderie between everybody, and what they were doing and why they were doing it.
“It was then that I decided I really wanted to do more to support the cause and be part of it. So that’s was how it started for me.
“Before that, it had been a while since I had been up on a bike.
“When I finished national school the bike also got the road. I hadn’t been up on a bike again until April of 2011, when we started training for last year’s Tour de Munster.
“Farming these days is not the physical activity it once was, we all know that. So along with doing something proactive for a worthy cause, there is also an opportunity to get and stay fit, which is a great bonus.”
On Aug 12, after four days of cycling a circuit through Munster that is as demanding as it is beautiful, the cyclists will return to Cork city, where the final stage will involve the gruelling ascent of St Patrick’s Hill. A fitting finale for such a resolute bunch.
Everyone who chooses to participate in the Tour de Munster agrees to cover their own costs, and all funds raised go directly to Down Syndrome Ireland.
Gerard has a charity website set up for the event and those interested in donating can do so through the following website:
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