Wednesday 28 September 2016

Steady hands needed as the fall-out from Brexit will make the Ploughing a more serious affair for farmers

Published 20/09/2016 | 02:30

The Ploughing Championships kick off again in Tullamore today. In truth, it's really a crossroads where farmers will be matched in number by punters from towns, villages and cities rediscovering their wellied-roots during a day out in the country.

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From Jersey cows to Jesuit evangelists, Europe's biggest outdoor farming event has something to appeal to every one of the 280,000 punters who will throng the 700-acre site over the next three days.

Wondering about funeral arrangements for your pet? Head to the Ploughing.

Interested in checking out the latest €250,000 satellite-controlled tractor? Make for the Ploughing.

Want to rub shoulders with politicians of every hue or hang out with bearded auld fellas and their beloved plough horses? Go to the Ploughing.

It's a miracle combination of hundreds of volunteers and big corporations, all guided by the steady-but-firm hand of the doyenne of the National Ploughing Association, managing director Anna May McHugh.

What the Laois woman says, goes.

And while there is a growing presence every year of extracurricular attractions, it is Anna May's tireless attendance at local ploughing matches and agricultural events throughout the year that keeps the agricultural community firmly at the core of the championships.

While most farmers treat the occasion as a busman's holiday and a day to relax, it is a key opportunity for the media, TDs and policymakers to gauge the mood of the agricultural community.

There is no doubt that prices for key agricultural commodities will be a talking point - it always is.

Beef has never been renowned for its profitability, but beef producers are especially worried about the fall-out from Brexit when they know that Ireland relies on Britain to buy over half of its beef exports.

Grain farmers have had an annus horribilis, with the dreaded combination of lower yields, a difficult harvest and prices that have collapsed due to bumper global harvests in recent years.

While bus drivers' protests might be occupying city dwellers' minds, grain farmers have already launched a series of flash protests at ports around the country, where thousands of tonnes of grain are being imported from as far away as Ukraine.

Cereal growers were rightly furious when they discovered that the imports were of lower quality than much of the grain coming off Irish farms.

But it is dairying that is possibly the biggest concern for the Irish agri-sector.

While the 17,000 dairy farmers are outnumbered by beef producers, it is the dairy farms that have traditionally provided the most reliable, full-time farming incomes in Ireland.

It was going through a golden patch up until two years ago, with record prices and massive investment both on-farm and down-stream in R&D and processing facilities.

Then the price tanked - almost halving from its peak in 2013 to as little as 20c/l in some cases. And while the situation was bad in Ireland, it was even worse in continental Europe, where producers have higher cost confinement systems.

Much of the blame was directed at the decision by the EU to scrap milk quotas, which had prevented big increases in milk output since 1983.

Ireland was seen as one of the biggest culprits, with production increasing faster here than anywhere else in the EU during the 12 months after quotas were axed.

Faced with dairy farmers going bust and drenching the streets of Brussels with worthless milk, the EU resorted to the old fall-back of buying up vast amounts of milk powder for long-term storage to try to stabilise the market.

This still didn't work, and we now have the bizarre situation where less than 18 months after its much trumpeted end of milk quotas and the signal to farmers that they were finally able to take on the free market, the EU Commission has been forced to introduce a crisis scheme that pays farmers to reduce milk production.

The only upside is that milk prices look like they have turned the corner. Farmer-owned milk processing co-ops have increased their payments to closer to 25c/l this month - bear in mind that every extra cent paid out on annual milk output ploughs an extra €65m into every parish in the country via farmers' milk cheques.

Other sectors also count. Sheep men have had a reasonable year, but there are so few sheep farmers making a full-time living out of the enterprise anymore that it gets a lot less of the farming limelight. However, the sector continues to provide a valuable lifeline of economic activity in the most marginal farming regions.

We shouldn't forget about the pig, poultry and horticulture sectors, but it's likely the plight of mushroom producers will dominate the headlines over the coming months, with the sector the equivalent of the canary in the mine over the potential impact of Brexit.

While we rely on Britain for 52pc of our beef exports, we rely on the UK for close to 90pc of our mushroom exports, so it's no surprise that two long-standing businesses have already gone to the wall with the loss of 100 jobs. Another five producers are believed to be in similarly dire situations.

So amid all the fashion shows and Richie Kavanagh sing-alongs, there will also be the serious business of farming to discuss in Screggan this week. But most will be there to get away from it all for a day, meet old acquaintances, and keepin' it country.

Irish Independent

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