Jer Bergin is confident he has the experience, track record, negotiating skills and vision to provide strong and forceful leadership for farmers.
“The IFA must continually reinvent itself to ensure that it remains firmly focused on the issues that affect the livelihoods of farm families. That requires a President with energy, courage and tough negotiating skills. I believe I am the person best equipped to do that and to represent the interests of all farmers.”
Restoration of the Charter of Rights for farmers, and a stimulus package to support farm development and expansion are among his top priorities.
“The Charter of Rights has been effectively dismantled in recent years. The Department has been let off the hook. I am committed to negotiating a new charter which will restore respect to farmers as equal partners. Farmers are progressively being treated as suspected criminals under an inspection regime that has become increasingly belligerent.”
He is committed to introduction of a stimulus package under which low cost, long term finance would be available for targeted farm development and for sustainable expansion. The package would be funded by the National Pension Reserve Fund and the European Investment Bank. He said that without such a package the targets under Food Harvest 2020 will not be achieved. Among his other priorities are:
* New REPS and disadvantaged area schemes with targeted hill measures, funded under the new rural development programme.
* Extension of tax incentives for long-term land leasing to within-family leases, combined with an innovative installation package for young farmers.
* Re-introduction of the ban on below cost selling in the retail sector.
- Fixed and forward price models to help insulate farmers against global food price volatility.
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 profitable, for farmers to stay in them?
>>This will not happen, for a variety of reasons, including land availability, farm fragmentation, age, capital investment needs, and personal preferences and skills of farmers. The bulk of expansion, certainly in the short term, will be on existing dairy farms. There is good scope for new entrants, but we must have proper financial instruments to support them. I have called for a Government-backed stimulus fund to provide low-cost, long-term finance for expanding farmers.
For the first time in 30 years, we have the opportunity to grow milk output. But growth must result in improved farm incomes. How we support expansion at home and at EU level will be a top priority for me as IFA President.
We have over 100,000 families in beef, sheep and tillage. Lifting incomes is vital not just to the viability of these families, but to the rural and national economy. IFA must be relentlessly focused on market and income support. Dealing with the cartel in the meat processing industry will be top of my agenda. We should also give serious consideration to moving to an Irish Dairy Board model for meat exports. Notwithstanding recent live export difficulties, it is essential we have a robust live export trade that gives full access to all markets, especially in the UK and Europe.
Environmental schemes, such as REPS and AEOS, and disadvantaged area payments, account for a big proportion of drystock income. There is a real opportunity under the new CAP to restore and revitalise these schemes. I will pursue this with vigour.
What will be the most important elements of the implementation of the CAP reform in Ireland?
>>Firstly, ensuring the Single Farm Payment is directed towards supporting production, while recognising enterprise and regional differences and difficulties, has been my top priority, as a member of the IFA CAP negotiating team.
Secondly, under the Rural Development Programme, or Pillar 2 as it’s called, it is vital we have a targeted environmental scheme with special measures for hill areas, SACs and commonages. The damage wreaked on environmental and disadvantaged areas schemes over the past five years must be repaired. There must also be strong investment schemes that support all sectors, including special measures for young farmers and new entrants.
Maintaining our suckler herd is vital to our future as an exporter of premium beef. It costs €800/annum to keep a suckler cow. There must be a realistic direct premium to protect this vulnerable sector, as well as a targeted support payment for the ewe flock.
Thirdly, there must be a market support structure for the dairy sector in the event of a slump in commodity prices. This has yet to be agreed in CAP negotiations. I will work diligently to ensure proper market management tools such as intervention, aids to private storage and export refunds are available to avert a collapse in incomes during a market downturn.
Fourthly, there is an opportunity to revive the Irish sugar beet industry, when the EU sugar quota regime is abolished in 2017. I will work with the Government and promoters to ensure a viable sugar beet growing industry can be developed. If it cannot deliver an acceptable farm income, it will not have my support.
Wind turbines are controversial in the midlands. Should all the community benefit economically from them and have a say in where turbines are placed?
>>Yes, the entire community should benefit. I strongly favour a community benefit fund of at least 1% of gross revenue from every wind energy development. This is a multiple of what some wind energy promoters are proposing. I believe this should be a statutory requirement of the planning process — which must also include clear recognition of temporary and permanent disturbance as a result of turbine development.
Location of turbines is the subject of a government review. This review and its recommendations must be based on independent, objective scientific evidence dealing with setback, noise and flicker. All guidelines should be given statutory basis, and the planning process must be sufficiently independent and robust to meet the needs of all stakeholders.
There have been big protests against upgrading the electricity grid using overhead pylons. What system do you favour for the grid link project?
>>Having direct experience of a 400Kv line crossing our farm for the past 25 years, I strongly favour the underground option. I believe the statutory compulsory purchase powers Eirgrid has at present put the company in the position of judge, jury and executioner. This must be changed.
Ireland stands to lose millions in EU payments due to abandonment and farming inactivity in upland areas. What is your recipe for the mountains?
>>What is happening at the moment with retrospective cuts in eligible area and payments is absolutely appalling and completely unacceptable. The authorities in Ireland and Brussels changed the goalposts, and unilaterally introduced new interpretations on eligible land. This is resulting in farmers in hill, SAC and commonage areas receiving demands to pay back thousands of euro. Farmers are in dread of the postman, and department officials are blind to the misery and hardship this is causing. This land was accepted as eligible in the past, and it is intolerable that farmers are asked to pay back money on the whim of new interpretations dreamed up by bureaucrats. If elected IFA President, I will pursue this with the utmost vigour, and defend the rights of these farmers.
Farmers in these difficult areas are entitled to supports that compensate for the natural restrictions. Furthermore, there can be no new designations of eligible land without compensation. There must be proper upland disadvantaged areas and environmental schemes to preserve and enhance farming activity.
What do you see as the main strengths and weaknesses of Irish farming?
>>Our biggest strength is our family farm structure, which if properly supported can continue to be a mainstay of the economy. Our green image and the dedication of farmers to sustainable production position us as a producer of quality food that can deliver a market premium. But this is merely flowery language unless it delivers acceptable income for primary producers.
Our biggest weakness is low farm income, with the average less than half the industrial wage. This has been accentuated by savage cuts in key supports over the past five years. The legislative framework is skewed far too much towards processing and retail. I am committed to address this imbalance. In particular, I want restoration of the ban on below cost selling by retailers, and closing of loopholes in labelling legislation.
Another major weakness is how farmers are treated by the Department of Agriculture and other regulatory authorities. We did have a Charter of Farmers Rights. But this has been demolished in recent years. I am committed to ensuring a new charter that treats farmers as equal partners is introduced early in 2014.
The new charter should incorporate a ‘yellow card’ system and focus on assisting farmers to be compliant. It should have tolerances for normal activity, and have payment on time as its core.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved