IFA president Joe Healy on Brexit: 'It's the biggest challenge of our lifetimes'
The Irish Farmers' Association president Joe Healy tells Louise Hogan about the need to look beyond the UK for exports with the shadow of Brexit looming
It's a responsibility that doesn't rest lightly on the Galway man's shoulders.
"Every farmer would accept that Brexit is the biggest challenge that has faced agriculture in all our lifetimes," said the dairy farmer frankly after being catapulted from the milking parlour into the boardrooms of Brussels just over a year ago.
Now, he is the public face of the country's biggest farm lobby with over 70,000 farmers paying membership fees to ensure the IFA is campaigning on their behalf.
"I take that responsibility personally," he said. "I want the members to feel they can contact me or contact the organisation at any time about anything. That might sound clichéd but it is the way I feel, it is their organisation."
It was that plain-speaking and frank approach that ensured the president of the IFA came into office on the crest of a wave of support for change after the organisation was damaged by high-profile pay revelations.
With Brexit looming and talk of a cheap food policy in the UK, Healy feels that farmers need someone batting on their behalf more than ever.
"If we have to move from the UK with our produce, it is very important that those areas in the department and the likes of Bord Bia are fully resourced," he said.
"We export food to 160-170 countries worldwide and it is important that we have a presence in a lot of those countries to maximise the potential that is there," he said, adding that regardless of Brexit, they need to reach a situation where they are not dependent on the UK for 40pc of exports.
He's clear that the desired option would be to maintain the closest possible trading relationship between the UK and the EU, with a soft border to protect the 44 million agricultural jobs in Europe.
Yet, Healy knows there is a long battle ahead after encountering "hard attitudes" towards the UK on his travels.
"The EU is important to the UK, how important agriculture is in the UK is the thorny issue," he said with farm groups in Northern Ireland and the UK vocal over their future without the CAP supports. "Their fear is of a cheap food policy, trade deals with countries where the production levels haven't the same standards as European farmers," he said.
A Teagasc economist has warned that EU farm payments to Irish farmers could drop by 10pc or €130m as the UK has been the second largest net contributor to the European budget.
"The Commissioner has made it very clear for CAP to be fully funded - the other 27 member states will have to make up the difference. I think there will be a net loss to CAP of approximately €3bn," he said. "If WTO tariffs apply, it would absolutely devastate our exports to the UK.
"We'll look to Europe then, and if you throw in another 270,000 tonnes of beef into a market that is already serviced, what is that going to do to price?"
Over a year ago when the IFA presidential race was under way, prices were on the floor in all commodities.
Now, the beef price has been steady with live exports making headlines in recent months, with Purcell Brothers loading a boat for Turkey this week and another on the way to Libya helping send national exports soaring to over 110,000 cattle.
"There was huge concern amongst farmers at the back end of last year when Cork Marts announced they wouldn't be exporting calves this year. There were visions of every Friesian bull calf being left in the country and it didn't look good.
"We lobbied the Department and the minister to get the export levies removed from the animals being exported - there was give or take a 50pc reduction that works out at about €1,000 in a load of calves being exported," he said.
"It proves the markets are there, and it is just a small little tweak here at home," he said.
"That level of export is vital to create competition in the marketplace and it was anticipated there would be 1.74 million cattle to be slaughtered this year. It was great to walk into a shed in the Netherlands last week and see 640 Irish Friesian calves - you'd prefer looking at them there than at a shed in Ireland," he laughs.
Overall, he feels the share for the retailer continues to be a significant issue with "more fairness" in the food chain needed across Europe.
Next up on the agenda is ensuring that €25m is returned to the ANC fund, campaigning to end EU fertiliser tariffs to help struggling tillage farmers, and he has his eyes set on the €5m underspend on the ewe scheme for the hill sheep sector.
It may be silage season with schools on the verge of the summer, but Healy already has the October Budget in sights.
Whether Leo Varadkar or Simon Coveney will be in the hotseat is still the question.
‘It feels like a novelty to milk the cows’
The call came through just after Joe Healy landed in Brazil to tell him his cows had gone down with TB.
He said the outbreak last October in the Galway area coincided with the construction of the new motorway between Tuam and Gort.
“That upset farming practices for a while but thankfully we are clear again. It was short-lived, we got on top of it straight away. We never had it in our lives,” he said. “We had the outbreak in one test and got clear in the next test.”
Like many farmers, he now knows the pain of losing cows after 23 were removed from the herd.
“The morning that they were being taken away, I had contemplated not being there, but I felt I had to be there,” said a clearly moved Healy. “When you see cows walking up the cattle crush that you reared as calves on your farm, you carried buckets of milk to them, you know them at a distance. You know them better than you know people. It is difficult to see them go. You have to move on and be thankful you got clear so quickly again.”
The past year has been a dramatic change for the family man.
“I went from getting up in the morning milking the cows, dropping the girls to school, farming for the day,” he said. “I went from that to it being a novelty now to drop the girls to school once in three weeks, milk the cows maybe twice a week on a Saturday or Sunday.”
Now, he is in the Farm Centre, Government Buildings, Brussels or on the road six days a week.
“At the weekend, you are at shows or events — I love that it gives you the chance to get out and meet members,” he said.
On the farm front, he has a very good working relationship with his farm manager, Diarmuid O’Connell, who has a strong interest in dairying.
“Now you love the day you get back farming and you enjoy it to pieces,” he said.
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