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Dublin: 16 °C Saturday 20 October, 2018
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Opinion: 'We don't need more leaflets from Teagasc. We don't need grants to build more sheds'

The way our climate is going, budgeting for a six, seven or even eight-month winter period is not beyond the realms of fantasy, writes Pippa Hackett.

Pippa Hackett Suckler beef and sheep farmer

LIKE THE PREVIOUS fodder crises in 2013, this current one will sort itself out over the next couple of weeks. But yet again, it will be the farmers who will ultimately carry the cost.

Come the summer, it will all be a distant memory, but like most farmers we will be playing catch up as we attempt to preserve enough fodder for next year’s winter feeding.

Slow grass growth and limited opportunities to sow and fertilise our fields, will make this even more difficult. But how much forage should we make, and can our land allow for this? The way our climate is going, budgeting for a six, seven or even eight-month winter period is not beyond the realms of fantasy.

Climate change

Although climate change is not a new phenomenon, the stark warnings from climate scientists on what it means for our weather systems and for farming in this country have not been heeded. Successive governments have continually ignored the science, listening instead to those with their own short-sighted agendas. Wetter winters, with more extremes of weather, have been predicted for decades.

Contrary to their promising titles, the government’s food production strategies (Food Harvest 2020 and Food Wise 2025) have failed on many levels.

Increasing food production is increasing our greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and places our agriculture sector in the uncomfortable position of being one of the largest contributors to our country’s total emissions.

Government strategies

Increasing food production cannot be achieved without nitrogen derogations, which have negative consequences for our water, air and soil quality. Agricultural growth has placed our biodiversity in peril, with several native species on the point of extinction.

Our farm animals are suffering too, and greater numbers, on farms not fit to support them, does not bode well for their welfare. More ironically, these government strategies have also failed the very people who should benefit most – our farmers. For many the margins are so tight, that an extended winter period will spell disaster – for their finances and their mental health.

Most farmers are forced to compete ‘on price’ in world markets for beef and dairy produce, when we should instead be occupying a niche market for our premium food produce. Despite what we are led to believe about “feeding the world”, Ireland produces only about 1% of the world’s beef and dairy produce.

So why then is our ‘premium’ produce competing against the might of Mercosur beef and New Zealand milk – perhaps is it not so special after all?

Like the vast majority of farmers, we rely on Bord Bía to market our produce. Bord Bía would do us all more justice to shift their strategy from simply searching for more markets, which commits our farmers to increasing production, to seeking out better markets, focussed on quality, provenance, and a authentic environmentally green origin.

So who really benefits from Food Wise anyway?

Is it the multinational agri-chemical corporations, the feed companies, the machinery manufacturers, the contractors, the meat and milk processors, the supermarkets – all creaming off the back of the farmer? The continued drive for expansion is forcing smaller farmers out of business, the farmers who are the heart and soul of Ireland, who have shaped this country.

Is this what we want for the Irish farming sector? We have devalued our uplands and marginal lands, yet they have so much to offer. Land abandonment is still occurring, and small farms are still being lost.

We can point fingers, blame environmentalists, and roll our eyes at ‘greenies’ all we like, but they did not dictate the weather, nor did they drive the expansion that sees us where we are today.

Common sense

We do not need more leaflets from Teagasc on how to maximise production. We do not need more monoculture and single species farms. We do not need more grants to build more sheds to hold more cattle.

We do not need our farming media full of advertising features touting fancy machinery, fertilisers, pesticides and pharmaceuticals, scaremongering farmers into purchasing their goods.

Farmers need to stop listening to the propaganda, and start listening to common sense. They need to listen to each other, and learn from the farmers that are doing it differently. Our government should be supporting farmers to add value to their product inside the farm gate, and seeking different routes to market. We need more local abattoirs, community based co-ops, and more lucrative niche market opportunities.

We need more on-farm diversification, mixed species, diverse swards, native woodlands, agroforestry, and organic farming. All of which will generate better incomes for farmers, while at the same time help farmers adapt to our changing climate.

So, as a farmer, I call on Leo and his government to put in place the strategies and incentives necessary, to support our farmers to engage in more climate appropriate farming. To plough the same furrow, year after year, decade after decade, is a disservice to our farmers, their families, their produce, and our environment.

Pippa Hackett is the Green Party’s Spokesperson on Agriculture, and a suckler beef and sheep farmer in Co Offaly.  

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About the author:

Pippa Hackett  / Suckler beef and sheep farmer

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