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Opinion: Small farmers need to wake up and realise that the big farming lobby doesn't represent their interests

The small farmer in Ireland has a very high-quality product. To differentiate themselves from the mass producers, they need to focus on quality and sustainability, writes Saoirse McHugh.

Saoirse McHugh

ON THE STORM-swept cliffs and mountains here on Achill island, only the best breed of sheep can survive and it takes an even tougher farmer.

Most Achill sheep farmers fall into the 41% of farmers which Teagasc declares are economically vulnerable. They work hard for what they get but it’s not enough on its own to support a family.

The result is that the older men tend to do this work, while the young emigrate, schools close and houses sit empty for most of the year. I’ve got a neighbour who jokes that we environmentalists want to get rid of the farmers but I’ve got another explanation for what is happening.

There is a massive divide between large-scale dairy farmers who are making the big bucks and the ordinary small farming families who are struggling to survive – the EU subsidy system needs to be radically overhauled to make small Irish farms sustainable. 

Farmers Lobby

The term ‘farming’ in Ireland actually refers to two entirely different livestock-centred worlds.

One world involves multi-million Euro international trade deals, ships packed with livestock heading across the Mediterranean, big money subsidies, large factories in China, and thousands of cattle on feedlots.

The other world – the one that I am more familiar with – involves clambering down a cliff to bring four rams back up, counting the new lambs before school, staying up for hours with a cow having difficulty and the need for off-farm income.

The monetary differences between these two farming worlds are stark.

The average dairy farmer in 2017 made a tidy €86,000/year which, due to the weather, dropped to €67,000 in 2018. If you take dairy farms out of the equation the average farm income drops to only €10,200 for cattle enterprises and only a little higher at €16,500 on sheep farms.

A recent Lancet report recommends a 90% reduction in meat consumption to avoid climate catastrophe.

This was met with strong resistance from Irish farming lobbies. The report also calls for lobby groups for large-scale agriculture and food production to be removed from positions where they can influence policy-making.

The practice of lobbying has devolved; lobby groups began as a way for people to organise and present their case to politicians but it has long since become a way for large businesses to protect themselves and influence policy.

The farming lobby has carefully positioned itself as the guardian of rural Ireland. However, a trip around Ireland quickly dispels that notion. Farm numbers are declining as big farms swallow up less competitive smaller farms, and enormous mechanized milking parlours have come to dot the landscape.

As a result, the towns are emptying. Now, the farm lobby and several politicians have recognised this inequality and have made noise in the defence of smaller farmers but nothing has materialized on the ground.

Profits on the biggest farms are rising, milk processors merge and consolidate power, and small-scale farmers continue to struggle and worry financially. If you look at where the money is, it is easy to see who the farm lobby really serves.

So why do they try so hard to convince the small-scale farmer that it is them they are fighting for?

I believe that the big farm lobby needs desperately to keep small farmers onside as it is their image that is sold worldwide.

It is a picture of a farmer and his dog on a windswept hill with 40 sheep, a farmer walking through a lush meadow with a few browsing cows, or a farmer leaning on an old Massy 135 that we see on adverts for Irish food, on milk cartons, and on government documents.

The 37 farms that each receives over €150,000 in basic payments are not the image that is sold abroad. Without using the small farmers as a selling point, Irish products would lose a lot of their attractiveness.

It is true that small farmers are the lifeblood of rural Ireland, but it is also true that they are being used and abused by those who claim to represent them.

The majority of farmers in Ireland will never compete with the big farms and I don’t think they should try.

The small farmers should reclaim their image, the image that is used to win big trade deals, to ensure enormous profits for the few, and to thwart any conversation around environmental impacts of farming in Ireland.

Quality and alternatives

 The small-scale farmer in Ireland has a much higher value product than the big farmer: they cannot compete in quantity but they can compete in sustainability, diversity, marketability, and quality.

They could look at various potential alternatives to dairy, like mixed cropping, organic farming or agroforestry.

But at the moment there is a big structural problem in the way that subsidies are allocated through CAP funding which benefits large farmers disproportionately and despite an increase in ‘green’ schemes, does not incentivize carbon sequestration or biodiversity benefits to a sufficient level.

Making other forms of agriculture more profitable would mean looking closely at all the subsidies, grants, and schemes and seeing how they influence what is being produced.

At the end of it, the farmers are the custodians of the land and they cannot be expected to change if they are not being paid to do so. Farming won’t be able to change without security in place for the farmers.

Currently, small farmers are playing by the rules of the biggest farmers and this means that the majority of them will lose. The truth is that these are two separate interest groups.

Small farmers need to draw a line between themselves and their interests on the one hand, and the big farm lobby on the one hand. That is the only way they can survive. 

That will require the small farmers refusing to let big agribusiness piggyback on their virtues.

Small farmers will need to think about how they can distinguish their product from the mass produced one and that will require that they lean into the environmental aspects of how they farm. 

Farming, like every aspect of our lives, will have to change. No more should the farm lobby, which represents a few huge business farms, speak on behalf of all farmers. 

Looking at the trends in farming in Ireland over the past 20 years, it doesn’t appear to me that environmentalists are the ones pushing small farmers off the land at all. 

It is the big agribusinesses that are doing that.

Saoirse McHugh is a Green Party candidate for the Midlands North West constituency in the European Elections. She comes from a small farming family in Achill Island, Co. Mayo and has a Masters in sustainable agriculture and food security. 

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Saoirse McHugh

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