Opinion: Hobby farms begone - is output per acre now the only thing that matters in rural society?
Published 18/05/2016 | 02:30
When history students want to gauge the mood of a particular time, it is to the letters, not the news, pages of the newspaper that they will turn.
When I was told this many moons ago by Paddy Smith, then deputy editor of this parish, I was shocked.
I was a news reporter and thought I was doing the important stuff. I now know that, when a journalist writes, they are doing their job. So when someone bothers to write a letter off their own bat it generally concerns something they feel strongly about.
Last week, the Irish Independent carried a short letter: "John Moran is quite correct. Ireland can't afford a rural Ireland, unless that is, the rest of Ireland wants to diet, Bord Bia wants nothing to sell and Fáilte wants to rebrand as Slán."
To my mind this captures the essence of not just the current debate about rural Ireland but also the broader question about whether we live in an economy or a society and how this is being played out in agriculture.
It used to be that all farmers were basically operating away on their own alongside their neighbours and would sporadically unite in battle, quite often against a processor of one of the primary products we produce.
But things have changed. Farmers are now competing directly against each other. This is most pointed in the case of land, which, as the saying goes, they are not making any more of.
Of course, there has always been localised competition for land.
In the past few years, much of the rented land that used to be in tillage and drystock has been taken over by dairy farmers. Fair enough. That's the market. But, now, even within dairying, there is a sense that the smaller people, no matter how efficient, are wanted out by the neighbouring bigger fellas.
During a bad spell of weather a few years back, a large dairy farmer in the mid-West was heard to say he hoped it might blow out a few more smaller lads.
The guy with 200 cows sees the guy with 100 as an obstacle to increasing production, a "land-blocker" as it were. But what the 200-guy may not realise is that the 300-guy sees him the same way. What is the end game in this? A country where all the milk is produced by a few?
Who would that be good for? This small number of businesses? The national economy? Local business? Rural communities? The environment? Our tourism industry? Is it the best balanced scenario for Ireland and humanity as a whole? And fewer farmers means less power for the sector.
A couple of years ago, someone from Teagasc told a dairy conference: "If you're not farming for profit, we'd like to wish you well with your hobby." Anyone who is less than fulsome in their support of this vision for Irish agriculture is seen as an outmoded doomster.
Higher output per acre does not necessarily mean higher profitability and nor does scale.
It's an oranges and apples comparison. Farmers are not just financial production units either.
Could it be said that smaller operators and so-called hobby farmers are not contributing at least as much in terms of overall enrichment, as well providing a good environment in which to live and raise a family?