FARMING POLL 2015: Farmers counting the costs of the past year

Tentative expressions of optimism notwithstanding, the year has been very challenging, writes ICMSA President John Comer

THIS is the third year that the Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers Association has joined with the Irish Examiner to conduct this revealing survey of Irish farmers to the most rigorous, methodological standards and on the most geographic, demographic, and sector-by-sector basis possible.

We are delighted that it has become a ploughing staple and that it is being referenced by a wider media in terms of what it tells us about the diverse and dynamic community that is Irish farming.

Quite often, suspicions are confirmed but very frequently glib assumptions about what farmers might think on a given subject are challenged by the data.

This year is no different.

ICMSA understands perfectly that perhaps it is the socio-cultural data that will attract the most media attention. Pundits and analysts will pore over the answers and percentages and make — or revise — their calculations, even more so than usual as the shadow of a general election looms.

ICMSA is, first and foremost, a farmer organisation with a special emphasis and relationship with the State’s family dairy farms. That is where we came from and that is still who we are proud to represent.

That, in turn, means that our core principle is the delivery of an income to family dairy farms that is consistent with the skill, capital investment, and long hours (an average of 60 hours per week) that full-time milk production involves. On that front, the difference in mood between the 2014 Irish Examiner-ICMSA survey and this year’s is very striking and noticeably more downbeat and anxious.

FARMING POLL 2015: Farmers counting the costs of the past year

Tentative expressions of optimism notwithstanding, the intervening year has been very challenging — to put it mildly. Farmer milk price fell by in excess of 35%.

I say “farmer milk price” because, naturally, the milk price charged by retailers to consumers didn’t fall by so much as a cent.

Not for the first time, the retail corporations who have been allowed develop an almost swaggering dominance within the EU’s food supply chain took advantage of the oversupply that preceded and accompanied quota abolition and simply cut the price they paid all the way backwards to the cow while fixing their own retail price and just eating up everyone else’s lost margins.

The losses involved are astronomical and ICMSA has calculated that, up to the end of August, the loss to the State in terms of direct lower milk price and the wider dairy-related “spend” into wider rural economy between 2014 and 2015 was certainly in excess €1bn. Cork alone, by our sums, was on course to see a reduction of €230m in dairy-related spend between last year and this.

In the face of this kind of crisis, we have to say that the response of both the Government and, more specifically, the European Commission has been distinctly underwhelming.

FARMING POLL 2015: Farmers counting the costs of the past year

The three most recent Global Dairy Trade Auctions have seen significant rises and we will expect to see farmer prices adjusted accordingly, and as quickly as possible. That notwithstanding, the Farm Council meeting on September 7 illustrated, graphically, what is wrong with the EU’s attitude to its own indigenous farm and food production sector.

A total aid package of €500m where Ireland’s share will amount to approximately €13.7m? A promising but vague commitment to setting up a high-level group to investigate the dominance and margin-grabbing of the handful of multibillion-euro corporations who have been allowed effectively dictate price backwards to the producers and forwards to the consumers for decades? We should be well past this kind of token gesture response.

In fairness to Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney, he has signalled that he is unhappy with the absolutely unfair structure of our food-supply chain and we note that Ireland voted for the institution of the investigating group.

But it’s really past the time for yet more reviews and reports — it’s time to confront what is a systematic abuse of farmers and primary food producers by some of the most powerful retail corporations on the planet who have been allowed hide behind the commission’s favoured “cheap food” policy for decades now.

It’s certainly been very cheap for them but ruinously expensive for Europe’s family farmers who have left the land in their thousands. ICMSA is determined not to let that happen in Ireland.

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