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Irish Independent
Irish Independent
Angus Woods

Angus Woods: Abandoned productive farmers paying a levy for nothing

It's hard to see where tillage farmers can get the support they need. Photo: Roger Jones

I attended a meeting hosted by the Department of Agriculture in Carlow last week to inform farmers of the changes that are part of Ireland’s CAP strategic plan.

These changes will have considerable impact at farm level. There are things we need to do and watch out for in advance of January 2023.

Wicklow is a small farming county, so travelling to our larger neighbours for information meetings is normal and expected. It’s quite a few years since we had the privilege of hosting a major farm meeting in this county.

Trying to organise big public farm meetings has always been difficult, especially when held in March in a county like Carlow, famous for hard-working farmers.

The difficulty increases as calving, lambing and sowing are at the top of everyone’s list of priorities.

Many Carlow farmers, and farmers from the surrounding counties, are set to lose financially because of Minister Charlie McConalogue’s CAP reforms, so I was expecting to see a good turnout on the night.

Previous reforms would have seen packed venues with passionate crowds, wound-up and ready for anyone that was proposing anything that would have negative financial implications for their farms.

There would have been a feeling of electricity in the audience and loud chatter before the meetings began.

Not so this time.

There was no problem finding parking and what struck me was the silence in the room. About 150 were in attendance and were well spaced out around the room. No buzz in the corridor or lobby area. Even allowing for the Covid effect, it really was quite eerie.

The Department had six speakers on duty and each gave a short but detailed presentation on their specialist areas. When they finished, the meeting opened for questions and opinions from the floor.

Much of what was being presented as the future of Irish farming for the next five years will lead to reduced production. Yet Minister McConalogue has been calling on productive farmers to increase tillage production, which was mentioned several times during the Q and A. Somewhat contradictory policy positions.

The cuts being implemented in the McConalogue reform, affecting the productive farmers present at the meeting, are not the first. They are coming on top of previous convergence, added to the cuts to single farm payments in the Ciolos reforms.

Carlow farmers suffered more than any other county when former Minister for Agriculture, Mary Coughlan, oversaw the closure of Ireland’s sugar-beet sector, with the compensation that beet growers received being incorporated into their single-farm payment over seven years.

Sugar-beet was a critical component in their crop rotations and their most profitable crop. A vibrant sector closed to make room for sugar imports into the EU.

At the meeting, the lack of representation from farm organisations was very noticeable. One of the most productive parts of the country is facing massive challenges and there was no sign of any presidents or deputies, commodity chairs, executive staff or board members (with the exception of Francie Gorman). The county chairs were strangely quiet.

It left me wondering what exactly are hard-working productive farmers paying a levy for? The levy system could always be justified when IFA had a solid CAP policy from the beginning of the CAP discussions, which supported production. For this CAP reform, that did not happen.

The reason given by IFA staff and senior elected leaders was they had more winners than losers with convergence, front-loading and environmental schemes.

The farcical tractor-cades at the end of the CAP negotiations, demanding Government sit down and talk to IFA, when specific demands and proposals should have been the reason for any protests, showed their lack of ability to represent productive farmers properly.

The 2015 Teagasc study showing that 40pc of farms have a total output of less than €8,000 pa indicates the difficulties around producing policy that favours production.

According to the study, at least 52,000 farms are not reliant on farm production — they are reliant on off-farm incomes.

The move away from defending production leaves the levy vulnerable and hard to justify, especially from the productive dry-stock and tillage sectors, who are heavily reliant on direct payments to compete with non-EU imports and intensively reared white meats.

With full-time farmer numbers falling and a lack of young people entering the sector, the agricultural vote is also diminishing.

Productive farmers need good representation more than ever as the number of farm votes shrink and politicians look to the areas where they can accumulate votes quicker and easier.

It’s hard to see where those losing heavily again in this CAP reform can get the support they need, and the sense of defeat was evident when listening to good, hard-working productive farmers after the meeting. There was a feeling of abandonment, which was so sad to hear.

Angus Woods is a drystock farmer in Co Wicklow.

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