The future of farming - If our farmers stand alone they will lose

The 2019 National Ploughing Championships end tomorrow evening. Ireland’s most popular outdoor event, and one of Europe's biggest, it was attended by almost a quarter of a million people last year. It is more than unlikely, hopefully, that the figure fell as dramatically as farmer confidence collapsed in the last year.

The future of farming - If our farmers stand alone they will lose

The 2019 National Ploughing Championships end tomorrow evening. Ireland’s most popular outdoor event, and one of Europe's biggest, it was attended by almost a quarter of a million people last year. It is more than unlikely, hopefully, that the figure fell as dramatically as farmer confidence collapsed in the last year.

This year’s Irish Examiner/ICMSA poll, the sixth, found only 32% of farmers imagined a positive future. That ratio has more than halved in 12 months.

A year ago 66% were optimistic. Two-out-of-three have become one-in-three in what seems an unprecedented crisis of confidence even in an industry as cyclical as farming.

That implosion is a response to the known unknowns, the unknown unknowns too, of Brexit, the Mercosur trade deal, the increasingly bitter conflict between beef producers, processors and large retailers, tightening environmental controls and changing consumer habits.

Each of these issues is significant and should even two or three of them go the wrong way for farmers the sector will indeed face new realities. Even if farm lobbies exaggerate the impact of Mercosur it seems reckless to hope that farming will not be very different in a decade.

Despite that pessimism, a 216-acre farm near Bunclody in Co Wexford sold in four lots for €3.05m last week, almost €1m above the €2.3m guide price.

Even if land prices seem to be driven by sentiment as much as by commercial potential, that figure, that spectacular commitment even at a moment of exceptionally low-interest rates, seems to challenge the poll findings.

That the selling auctioneer said he had had a large number of disappointed under-bidders seeking similar land also runs counter to the poll findings. That there were 1,700 commercial exhibitors, 186 international, at Ballintrane hardly suggests an industry in crisis either.

Responding to the poll, ICMSA chairman Pat McCormack said farmers were under attack on many fronts. “The fact is that the past year has seen our ... sectors completely undermined and under attack,” adding that the beef sector was “a mess” with price-setting power firmly in the hands of retailers.

It may be of little comfort to Mr McCormack and his peers but that is no more than a version of the reality faced by the great majority of workers today. An Irish beef farmer, especially a small one, and a footsoldier worker in one of the Dublin tech campuses are both price takers and have far less leverage than they might expect when negotiating pay. Two wrongs, however, do not make a right.

Farmer pessimism is reflected in a Teagasc viability of farming assessment. It found only 11% of suckler beef farmers as viable, with 46% sustainable, and 43% vulnerable.

Economically viable means income generated can support family labour at the minimum wage, and provide a 5% return on capital held in non-land assets such as machinery or livestock.

That only one-in-10 beef farms are viable is shocking as is the hard fact that the EU income supports are the lifeblood of farming. Without them, collapse looms.

Where once land ownership was a path to a decent income now it is, all too tragically, often a chit attracting a subsidy.

The permanence of those subsidies, and how they might be leveraged to change farm practices and psychology is a pressing question.

The beef dispute showed farmers they have considerable support and that they face the same challenges as many of their fellow citizens.

Maybe that commonality could be a bridge to achieving better outcomes for food producers and everyone else struggling with the absolute power of the market.

That is why farm co-ops were set up over a century ago.

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