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Dublin: 8 °C Monday 6 April, 2020

Opinion: Farmers should support the Green Party - and secretly some of them probably do

Farming needs to become sustainable to survive and most farmers don’t want to damage the natural world, writes Ray Foley.

Ray Foley

AN RTE EXIT poll after the European elections found that not a single farmer admitted to voting for Green Party MEP hopeful, Saoirse McHugh, who ran in the Midlands-North-West constituency.

Achill island native McHugh holds a masters degree in sustainable agriculture and food security. She made the plight of small farmers a central theme of her election campaign. 

In line with Green Party policy, McHugh’s intention is not to admonish this way of life. She wants to make it sustainable.

In recent years the word ‘sustainable’ has been misused to the point where it is at risk of losing all meaning.

It is defined as the ability to repeat the same actions in perpetuity without suffering losses. Irish agriculture is not in that space at the moment. 

Even if we ignore the fact that our agricultural practices are the main driver of water quality problems, that cattle farming accounts for an overwhelming proportion of our greenhouse gas emissions and that farming is one of the primary causes of biodiversity loss.

The sustainability deficit in Irish agriculture runs even deeper than all of those issues. 

The economy, stupid.

I live in west Clare. The ground is wet and suckler beef is the only game in town. Nobody is getting rich off the land out here.

Take away the single farm payment and farmers would be operating at a five percent deficit. The wife of a local farmer recently described their fifty acres as the most expensive hobby a person could have. 

Another local told me he regularly brings cattle back from the mart because the prices are so appalling. Most of my neighbouring farmers are on the verge of retirement and the younger ones are all working second jobs.

Throw Brexit in the mix and all bets for the future are off.

But what about the dairy farmers – aren’t they doing alright? There is no doubt that since the abolition of quotas, they are making money.

But that expansion comes at a high cost. On a personal level, it is a very demanding lifestyle. On top of that many farmers have invested heavily and their ability to make their repayments are now dependent on the vagaries of global markets.

A combination of these factors means that working the land is no longer an enticing option for a new generation. More than a few dairy farmers I know have no heirs who are interested in taking on the farm – even when they are profitable enterprises.

On more marginal land the inheritance issue is a full-on crisis. Farmers have become victims of their own selfless desire to see their children educated to a standard much higher than they received.

Now, these young engineers, doctors, and teachers are living away and although they may love the farm, many won’t be coming back.

Increasingly working alone, being socially isolated, under financial pressure and worrying about paperwork and inspections have come to define farming in Ireland.

Those bleak assertions are not my opinions. Farmers themselves are shouting them from the rooftops.

Closet Greens

Economic incentives and bad advice have led many farmers away from their natural position as custodians of the land. However, a deep connection to nature remains.

Most would be very uncomfortable with the idea that what they are doing is damaging to the natural world. The constant media criticism compounds this sense of discomfort.

Farmers value certain traits in one another. Hard work, productivity and efficiency for example. Conversely, there is little social capital to be gained from appearing to care about the natural world.

This is an ironic situation given that the basic prerequisites to effective farming – stable climate, healthy soil, clean air, water – align with those of healthy ecosystems.

There is a latent interest in nature but one which has been obfuscated to the point of taboo. I spoke to a dairy farmer and entomologist from north Tipperary.

He told me insects and flowers are not a topic one would bring up in conversation at the mart but that he would often be pulled aside by individual farmers with a picture on their phone of an insect or butterfly saying  “C’mere John, I’ve not seen this one before. What in the name of God is it?”

In another example, a dairy farmer recently turned down an opportunity, to have his work on promoting biodiversity acknowledged, due to concern about the perception of his peers. 

What the Greens really want?

The Green Party’s unpopularity among the farming community could be attributed to perceptions that they don’t understand rural life and a fear that they may pose an existential threat to it.

At present, the farming community feels better served by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. There is some logic to this, in recent decades these parties have overseen exponential growth in output from Irish farms – but at what cost?

Socially, environmentally and economically the model looks increasingly broken.

The Greens suggest a different approach. Their agriculture policy aims to create viable on-farm livelihoods, support intergenerational farming and achieve better prices by emphasising quality over quantity.

They would like to see farmers diversify their activities to create resilience and they support additional payments to farmers who improve environmental outcomes. 

In broader terms, they want to stabilise our climate, protect our waterways and air quality and ensure our soils remains productive. These are ambitions that most farmers could get behind.

Of course, the Greens protest too. They decry the degradation on waterways, the loss of habitats and the declining bird and insect life.

Many of these issues are symptoms of intensification required to sustain the stack ‘em high, sell ‘em cheap model endorsed by successive governments.

The Greens are careful not to blame individual farmers and instead point the finger towards the system within which they operate

Could farmers have told exit pollsters little green lies?

Most farmers will tell you that while farming is a difficult occupation they wouldn’t change their job. It is a unique vocation.

For farmers, it offers a diverse working life and a rare connection with the great outdoors. For the rest of us, it puts food on the table.

Family farms really are the beating heart of rural Ireland. It would be a great shame if the next generation of children is excluded from this tradition.

At local election level, there are hints that perceptions of the Greens are changing.

The party succeeded in getting a number of local councilors elected in rural heartlands of Ireland including Roisin Garvey in North Clare, Pippa Hackett in Offaly and Alastair McKinstry in Connemara.

It is unlikely that those rural seats could have been won without the support of at least some farmers.  

Ray Foley works for an Irish environmental NGO. He is not a member of the Green Party.

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Ray Foley

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