FIGHTING FOR THE FARM

12 October 2012 No Comments by The Northern Standard

There was undoubtedly a strong Co Monaghan representation among the thousands of farmers who assembled in Dublin for Tuesday’s ‘day of action’ to articulate concerns over pending changes to the Common Agricultural Policy and other issues of pressing importance to the agri-sector.
It has been one of the defining strengths of the IFA and our other farming representative bodies that they can very efficiently and effectively mobilise their members in organised demonstrations of protest.
The approach is effective in that it draws the attention of the wider public to the issues at hand and conveys impressions of both strength of feeling and strength in numbers that national politicians would be unwise to ignore.
In the current climate, however, there is the danger that disruptive demonstrations such as the capital witnessed on Tuesday will alienate those outside the farming sector.
Many groups in society are facing into the December Budget with trepidation – some will feel that, unlike themselves, farmers have a degree of insulation against economic difficulties in that they enjoy a system of supports and payments not accessible to other sectors, and have sufficient lobbying weight to safeguard their interests even in the worst of times.
This perception may not stand up entirely to the arguments that farmers can mount against it, but it is a prevalent one nonetheless – and one inclined to prosper rather than wither while the national economy lingers on the critical list.
The IFA have a wider PR war to win than the one they persistently wage with those in power nationally or in Europe – they need to get the people on their side if the very important campaign they are waging to secure the future of the family farm is to succeed.
For their part, those inimical to the farmers’ protesting stance should put aside their hostility to examine the issues that prompted the latest ‘day of action’ – for they are all ones of wide-reaching relevance to the community good, particularly in our own county of Monaghan where economy activity, and prospects of economic recovery, remain closely bound to agricultural activity.
The IFA’s concerns over the new Common Agricultural Policy budget shortly to be agreed in Europe are very real, and very urgent.
The prodigious level of European spending on the CAP makes it a magnet for the scalpel.
The method of surgery which European Agriculture Commissioner Dacian Ciolos seems to favour is what has been described as a “flattening out” of payments along a system which would not take into significant account the nature or level of activity in particular areas of the country, or the particular difficulties that farmers in those areas might have to address in terms of the land available to them or the markets they have access to.
It’s a subtle sort of cut, a distributive mechanism that doesn’t acknowledge either local difficulties or local potentials, and Irish farmers are right to be alarmed by its implications.
The IFA fears that a CAP change along these lines would have a major adverse impact on plans to grow the Irish agri-food sector at a time when activity in this area has bucked the prevailing trends by significant potential for expansion.
If such expansion is retarded by changes to the CAP, there are obvious implications for the local economy in terms of both current and future jobs – markets for farm produce could retract rather than expand, and disincentives to production could carry a knock-on impact that the consumer will feel in their pocket when they visit the shops.
Irish Minister for Agriculture Simon Coveney is committed to pursuing an alternative course in the forthcoming negotiations, one that will limit the impact on production, and the extent to which his persuasive influence is felt will have significant implications for the roadmap for economic recovery in counties where agriculture remains a significant employer and producer.
From the point of view of the national interest, the IFA’s CAP argument is persuasive – they may find it more difficult, however, to win widespread sympathy for their demand that the level of expenditure by the Government on farm support schemes must remain untouched in Budget 2013.
Farmers argue that the budget for agriculture, compared to spending in other areas of government activity, has already been disproportionately reduced over the past four years – but the cuts that have been made to other more vulnerable areas, in health or education for example, have arguably had more profound impact than those delivered to the farm sector.
One strong argument in favour of minimising cuts to farm schemes in the Budget for this year at least is presented by the dreadful weather conditions farmers had to endure this summer.
This has undoubtedly impacted on the production capacity, and consequently the profitability, of small holdings and the activities of low-income farmers who have also had to content with rising costs and falling prices.
For those farmers below a certain level of income, there is surely a case to be made this year for at least the maintenance of the current level of the supports which they are undoubtedly relying upon to sustain viability.
Tuesday’s demonstration also heard a strong re-echoing of Irish farmers’ call for a fairer deal from the retailers who purchase and sell on their produce to consumers.
The cry of farmers for more money for their produce has been a perennial one, but there are issues of concern here in which more than the farmer has a stake – consumers are also adversely affected by the lack of effective regulation of the activities of the multiples which have grown to dominate the Irish retail sector, and like the farmer stand to benefit remuneratively if this particular nettle is grasped.
One imagines it will ultimately take the introduction of European legislation to ensure that the sort of consistency and transparency in pricing practices that will benefit both the producer and the consumer comes into being – but the appeals of agricultural interests for this to come about must be taken up across the spectrum of economic contributors before the powers that be are prompted into action.
Farmers will always divide opinion when they take to the streets to amplify their causes – but their causes are often worthy, as in the current instance, of wider attention and support.

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