9 August 2019 No Comments by The Northern Standard

At a time when producers in Ireland’s embattled beef sector are having to resort to increasingly militant action to highlight the seriousness of the challenges confronting them, when the nation’s prized competitiveness and high quality standards in food production are in danger of being compromised by the EU’s controversial Mercosur trade deal, when farmers find themselves increasingly in the climate change firing line, and when every aspect of farming must cope with the uncertainty of Brexit, the arrival of the agricultural show season is both a relief from the routine travails of the sector and an important reaffirmation of the centrality of agriculture and the rural economy to the Irish way of life.

But events such as Castleblayney Show, which went off with conspicuous success on Bank Holiday Monday last, and Tydavnet Show, which will take place on Saturday August 17 next, are much more than mere summertime diversions or quaint showcases for the various facets of countryside living. At this time of perhaps unprecedented change and challenge for Irish farmers, they provide a focus for the traits of adaptability and adherence to high standards which form essential requirements for Irish agriculture as it strives to both survive and thrive in an often-inimical global landscape.

The national protests being co-ordinated by the Beef Plan movement to put pressure on processors to increase prices have brought scenes onto the media that might prompt observers to acquaint them with the sort of truculently militant approach to campaigning that farmers in this and other parts of the world routinely resorted to in decades past in order to highlight grievances, blocking traffic in cities or herding various forms of livestock into the streets to bluntly make their point. But the tenor of the current blockades and demonstrations at the gates of meat plants seems very different – there is about it an undercurrent of desperation which makes this form of action less the show of force of old than a genuine and troubling Cri de Coeur. Beefmen facing extinction are taking extreme action as they try to ensure the survival of their way of life – surely our Minister for Agriculture can do more than merely urge the owners of factories and farms to sit down like good fellows and talk their differences through?

The Mercusor deal, which will open up EU markets to beef from Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay, is needed like a hole in the head by Irish producers at this time. The pressure on the Irish Government to resist the deal is strong, but the Government are not in a straightforward position – other aspects of the trade agreement would seem to open up potentially lucrative new markets for other Irish food producers and enterprises. And it may well be that Mercusor’s impact will be only glancing compared to the head-on collision that family farms, particularly those in the Border region, will find themselves enduring if and when a no-deal Brexit takes hold.

Farmers looking to the wider State sector for a little solidarity at this time will have been dismayed by the findings of the recently published Climate Change Advisory Council report, which urged a drastic reduction in suckler herd numbers in order to keep Ireland within the parameters of commitments made to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. While the reaction of the farming organisations to the report was a robust rebuttal – IFA Environment Chairman Thomas Cooney decrying the document’s lack of vision and direction, and finding its focus on food production a lazy target – there was a distinct sense of the wagons being circled by the lobbyists at a time when constructive engagement is needed. Farmers have much in the way of common sense and good example to contribute to the climate change debate – but they cannot do this from behind the barricades.

What have all these weighty dramas on national and international stages got to do with the local theatre of the agricultural show? In essence, everything. Our show tradition is an important annual reinforcement of the integral bonds entwining our farming traditions and our wider way of life, bonds that have grown stronger and more complex rather than weaker with the diversification of our economy and the changing demographic patterns of our population. These bonds are particularly important components of the fibre of predominantly rural counties such as our own. What affects the farmer affects us all, whether it be the food on our tables or the modes of employment available to ourselves and our children. So we all have a stake in ensuring that the issues impacting prosperity and production on our farms are sensibly – and sensitively – addressed.

There is in the competitive environment of agricultural shows the kernel of solutions for many of these problems. Such are the exacting standards demanded for success in the prestigious competition classes hosted at Castleblayney, Tydavnet and the shows of our neighbouring counties on both sides of the Border that cattle, dairy and bloodstock producers seeking distinction there must embrace modes of best practice that have due regard to sustainability, traceability and environmental integrity. Adherence to this demand for excellence testifies to the surpassing quality of the Irish farm product – and the need to protect its marketplace from inferior competition emanating from agricultural environments not governed by comparable regulation, or emphasis on production purity.

The healthy show circuit that has grown up in our own region surely serves as a powerful refutation of the attitudes of insularity that led Britain so foolishly down the Brexit pathway. Cross-Border and cross-community participation in the shows of the island’s nine Ulster counties in particular have led the groundwork for the building of deep and mutually beneficial relationships between farming practitioners that transcend all the physical and invisible barriers that partition has been heir to. Were a manifestation of Brexit to be permitted that sundered these rich business and human bonds, it would be a disaster, and a shattering reversal for community cohesion and all the careful peace- building that neighbours along the Border were quietly engaged in for decades before the politicians finally got around to it.

One has only to cast a casual eye around the show rings, trade stands and family attractions of any Border agricultural show to see copious examples of convivial human interaction that transcend all difference of tradition, worship or identity. Our show tradition is not only one of our most powerful bulwarks against Brexit – it is one of the strongest arguments as to why any no-deal scenario must be determinedly

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