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Thursday 15 November 2018

'We are almost like counsellors for farmers' - New ACA president Owen O’Driscoll on how the work of the agri is not just confined to the schemes

The ACA’s new president Owen O’Driscoll has been steeped in farming since setting up his own consultancy on finishing college

Owen O'Driscoll: Balancing the expansion of farming with environmental targets is one of the biggest challenges facing the sector. Photo: Kevin
Owen O'Driscoll: Balancing the expansion of farming with environmental targets is one of the biggest challenges facing the sector. Photo: Kevin
Jim O'Brien

Jim O'Brien

Owen O'Driscoll runs across the car park of ta midlands' hotel to meet me, even though he is early for the interview. This agile West Corkman is the new president of the Agricultural Consultants Association (ACA), a man who lives life at a busy pace.

An Agricultural Science graduate of UCC, the Skibbereen man did his masters in UCG and went straight from the exam hall to setting up shop as a private agricultural consultant, working from his parents' home.

"REPS [Rural Environment Protection Scheme] had just started then so I immediately began to make contact with farmers and draw up plans. It took off from there," he says.

And take off it certainly did. From small beginnings in 1995 and a small company known as West Cork Agri Services, the organisation is now known as Owen O'Driscoll and Associates and has two offices, one in Skibbereen and one in Kenmare, employing 12 people - seven consultants, an office manager and four administrative staff.

"We cover a huge area," he says. "Our farmers are based in the three peninsulas of west Cork and south Kerry and are mainly engaged in sheep, beef and suckler farming with some intensive dairy operations around Clonakilty and Skibbereen."

About half his clients are full-time with the other half earning off-farm income from a variety of sources, including fishing, agricultural contracting, agri-tourism and building.

The work of the agricultural consultant is broad ranging and not just confined to the schemes. "I suppose essentially we are experts or specialists in all the EU schemes and our job is to help farmers maximise the income and the benefits of the schemes," Owen explains. "The range of skills and advice includes animal health, nutrition and well-being, stock management, soil fertility and soil/grass management, farm management and farm safety. We also deal with budgeting, succession, succession planning and farm partnerships."

The most important thing for Owen is the relationship they have with the farmers.

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"They learn to trust us and confide in us, we become an important source of professional and personal support for them, almost like counsellors. For instance, at the moment these farmers are physically very stressed.

"The sheer length of the winter has left them physically and financially drained and the consultant plays an important role as a listening ear and helping to plan a way forward."

In assessing the major farming schemes Owen regards the original REPS as the cream of the crop, "It had benefits all round. The plans were comprehensive with clear indicators to show they were being implemented and the progress made.

"The scheme gave a sense of value to the farmer and the work he had undertaken. In turn, the farmers felt they were contributing in a tangible way to the improvement of the environment and there was a good cheque at the end," he says.

"That first REPS scheme was a net contributor to the economy in the sale of fencing materials, fertilisers lime and other materials locally."

He believes the Green Low-Carbon Agri-Environment Scheme (GLAS) has proved successful but doesn't suit every farmer. "Many do not have the environmental assets to optimise the payments. If your land is too good GLAS is not suitable. Small farmers with good land were excluded," he says.

In relation to the modernisation scheme TAMS, after initial teething problems he believes it evolved positively. "Progressive farmers see it as an opportunity to improve and expand. Dairy farmers have very much benefited," he says.

Looking ahead, the challenges facing farmers include succession, Brexit, CAP 2020 and balancing the growth of production with environmental concerns.

Succession planning

"Succession and succession planning continue to be a big issue for farmers and those advising them," he says. "The challenge is to take the personalities out of succession and make it business-like and strategic. The government has a role to play by coming forward with measures such as tax incentives to support orderly succession." Owen also believes farm partnerships have an invaluable role to play in the succession journey.

"The disappearance of 10pc of the EU budget with the departure of the UK has to be a concern," he says. "Brexit will obviously have a serious knock-on effect on CAP 2020. The big issue with CAP 2020 at the moment is the possible dilution of Pillar II. If there is a serious reduction in the supports provided under this pillar you will see land abandonment in the places where I work. If it doesn't pay farmers to farm extensively on marginal land then they wont do it."

He believes the Pillar II supports are vital for rural Ireland. "They bring in income and sustain the environment," he says. "If people want these to stay then they will need to exert political pressure before anything is written in stone."

Managing and balancing the growth in production while trying to control and reduce carbon emissions is a real conundrum facing everyone in agriculture.

Owen believes it is a problem that will occupy the attention of people involved in agriculture at many levels in the coming years. "It will be a difficult job managing the opposing pressures, " he says.

As man who played serious club football in west Cork, Owen is no stranger to dealing with opposites. The father of five has a lot of demands on his time and his loyalties. "I played football all my playing days in the red of O'Donovan Rossas and I now live in opposition territory where I train my kids and support them playing in the blue of Castlehaven. That's like changing your religion," he says.

Managing the competing pressures of local and national work should be no bother to him.

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