Beef sector needs a new Land Commission
Published 30/03/2016 | 02:30
An article by Mike Brady which appeared in a recent Farming Independent got me thinking about the Irish beef industry. Before we commence, it can be quite easy to dismiss any ideas I might have on the beef industry as I'm coming from a tillage perspective, but I think the problems the industry have are obvious, even to us non-beef people.
Mike equated the losses incurred on a 40ha beef farm with the annual subscription for golf club membership and pay per view TV. That in itself is not a problem - everyone needs a poison and if someone wants to lose money on beef production, that's his or her prerogative.
The problem is that this is not the case of a few individuals looking for a good form of stress relief; it's the basis for a sector that is the largest indigenous industry we have in the country.
If you want to see how the beef industry in Ireland operates, go to any rural town between school pick up time on a Friday until just before The Voice begins on Sunday evening.
Between these times, the roads are chock full of jeeps and trailers moving cattle around from one small parcel to another. What's happening is that the part-time farmers are away all week making a living, but spend all weekend moving cattle and catching up on their farm work in order to get ready for the next week.
The cause of this flurry of agricultural production during the snatched weekend hours is scale. The reason these part-time farmers spend such vast amounts of time moving the cattle from one small holding to another is to do with land structure in Ireland.
The work carried out in the late 19th to the mid 20th century under the various Land Acts and through the Land Commission, has indentured a land structure that, while completely appropriate for a past era, is now completely inappropriate for the current agricultural production system.
The land was initially made available to the grandfathers of our part-time farmers. This land passed to the fathers, who were able to squeeze a living from the same land bank, perhaps adding some innovation and maybe some extra land as it came available.
However, the third generation now in charge has no hope of making a living from the same land block - it's just not viable. As food producers we are often criticised for being unable to produce a viable income for ourselves without being subsided.
Just look at the effort these part-time farmers are putting into producing their beef. They are working nights, weekends and days off using substandard equipment and paying through the nose for everything because they are buying in such small quantities.
They are getting poorer prices for their produce because they haven't enough numbers. Add it all up and the reality is they are the ones subsidising food production, not the other way around. What are the implications of this small-scale beef industry and, for example, the targets outlined in the Department's Food Harvest 2020 plan?
Research shows that part-time farming does not continue through the generations.
While Daddy is quite content spending every waking hour working at his job and then working on the farm, young Johnny or Mary, will be less inclined to follow that road when their time comes. So over time, the beef industry might well find itself very short of its primary inputs.
I believe that we need a level of innovation, or 'disruption' as the internet moguls call it, akin to the 19th century Land Acts to re-address land structure issues and make our industry more robust.
What form this new Land Commission would take is open to discussion - it's a complex problem.
A central management body would be required, perhaps funded by industry, who will be the end beneficiaries of more efficient production.
Given the price of land, purchase by the state is probably out of the question in most cases, but perhaps 10, 20 or even 30-year leases are appropriate.
I believe land would be easily enough sourced for these leases as the 'fourth generation' land owners could well be glad to see unprofitable holdings go to appropriate use; the huge amount of out-farms could also be listed for inclusion.
The Irish government themselves own a lot of land through the various state bodies, local authorities etc. The real problem would occur when it comes to who gets this land.
The recent land grab for entitlements for new entrants would suggest this would be a difficulty. However, these problems were addressed before by the Land Commission, so it's not an insurmountable problem.
The saying 'the stone age didn't end because we ran out of stones' is a particularly apt one here.
Technology changes and as a species we adapt accordingly. If you look at the Irish landscape there are many fossilised reminders of once great pillars of industry.
Look along the rivers of the country, at the ruins of the great water mills and workshops that milled grain for bread, produced wool and flax for clothing and produced leather for shoes. These businesses were run by clever businessmen, who had development plans and growth targets of their own, but they didn't respond to change and they are now all gone.
I believe that if we continue as we are going, in a short period of time, our huge slaughtering and processing plants, not to mention the countless slatted sheds around the country - all built to Department specification and all in receipt of a not-inconsiderable amount of taxpayers money - will go the same was as those water mills.
Dr Richard Hackett is an agronomist based in north Co Dublin and is a member of the ITCA and ACA