Monday 24 October 2016

Louise Hogan: Farmers' trust in top executives has been broken

Published 22/04/2016 | 02:30

ICMSA's Pat McCormack
ICMSA's Pat McCormack

It may be a case of once bitten, twice shy. Farmers' trust in those at the top to deliver fair salaries for top executives has been well and truly broken.

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They had placed their faith in the country's largest farmer representative body, the Irish Farmers' Association. Yet their trust was dented after a pay controversy in which it emerged that former general secretary Pat Smith got a pay package of almost €1m over two years.

It is the comparison that leaves farmers angered - as it is a figure that is far beyond the Teagasc analysis that places the average farm income at €26,642.

As the ICMSA's Pat McCormack points out, farmers feel far removed when they hear figures such as the total pay for the top nine managers at Ornua last year amounting to €4.4m, including pensions and benefits.

Now the ripples are continuing throughout the agri-food sector - a sector that often keeps senior pay levels behind closed doors.

In the likes of the commercial plcs, the figures are available.

They show that Glanbia's Siobhan Talbot took home a pay packet of €1.8m in 2015, while Kerry's Stan McCarthy made €4.23m in 2015.

However, Ornua may be able to point to that as a comparison but perhaps it could be argued it is not exposed to the same level of buffering of the corporate winds from the stock markets as the plcs.

Yet there is a veil drawn down over senior level pay throughout the agri-industry, with few figures available from the farmer-owned co-ops around the country on top-level pay at the bodies charged with taking care of farmers produce.

More and more often, questions are cropping up, as we've seen at the recent IFA hustings where pay and transparency were key points raised by farmers night after night.

It is likely this will continue to come up more and more as farmers see the base prices they are getting paid for their milk drop below the cost of production.

It is estimated the fall in milk price has wiped €1bn from the rural economy.

After years where agriculture has been touted as a fail-safe in securing jobs during the downturn, it appears that as the economy picks up agriculture is slumping.

Prices for grain, milk and pigmeat are on the floor, with growing concerns over cheap beef from South America potentially pushing beef off the shelves of European supermarkets.

Yet farmers have seen few inputs fall, with the price of fertiliser still astronomically high, and the bill for labour, electricity and many other costs remaining static.

Yet the country's dairy co-ops, located in rural communities that are feeling the pain of poor milk prices, either refused or didn't respond to queries about senior level pay.

The ICMSA's Mr McCormack pointed out farmers were dependent on the person to whom they gave a "mandate" to represent them on the board. "There needs to be a re-energising of co-op boards - in some you could go in at 22 and be there till 68 or 69," he said.

"Farmers would feel maybe less removed from the co-op movement if there was a greater involvement of suppliers. It would lead to more farmer inclusion. You might be lucky if there was one change in two years."

We've seen farmers vote with their feet in recent days as they backed an 'outsider' to take over as the new president of the Irish Farmers' Association.

It shows that farmers can bring about change, they just have to continue to demand it.

Irish Independent

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