Darragh McCullough: Social media spotlight is piling more pressure on farmers to up their game

Darragh McCullough eats, sleeps and lives farming. Photo: David Conachy
Darragh McCullough eats, sleeps and lives farming. Photo: David Conachy
Record haul: daffodils
Darragh McCullough

Darragh McCullough

We set a new record here on the farm yesterday. I had 40 people out in the fields picking daffodils and they came in with a haul of over 500,000 stems.

There's neat symmetry in this moment in that yesterday's single day of picking is exactly half of my total production of daffodil flowers during the first year that I started supplying supermarkets exactly one decade ago.

The business back then was more of an add-on to the other enterprises here at Elmgrove. But it has now grown to the point that we are exporting to several countries and supplying two major supermarkets.

The downside is that my price is actually lower now than when I started 10 years ago and it has become real high-wire stuff when you deal in large volumes of what is basically another commodity, even if it is one of the more unusual ones.

After a strong week of picking you could end up with flowers worth about €100,000 stuffed into your fridge.

That's great if you manage to turn them all into money, but unfortunately customer demand does not mirror nature's growth patterns.

Instead you end up gambling on finding an extra outlet for a product that only gives you a few days grace.

This is what the experts tell us is diversification and niche. But it's baloney to think that it's everybody's cup of tea. It's stressful, and demands almost every moment of my waking thoughts at this time of year.

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But while it's easy to lose yourself in the stresses and strains of the day-to-day grind, days like yesterday are a reminder of the huge progress we're making in developing a world-class business.

I see the same process happening quietly in farm-yards all around me.

Whether they are putting up another acre of glasshouses, calving down an extra 60 cows, or signing up leases on another 100 acres of land, many of the 'strong' farms that I see pushing on around the country are now turning over more than €1m annually.

The farmer feeding 350 cattle in a shed is probably hitting the one million mark as well. But it's worth noting that the biggest cattle sheds to go up in these parts over the last few years have all been built by tillage men looking to add value to their grain and straw, as well as generate a ready supply of organic manure.

The Achilles heel of these larger units is the public perception that they are 'factory' farms wreaking havoc on the world around them.

The irony is that the larger units tend to be more professionally run, with the resources to invest to constantly improve standards.

The twinned impact of veganism and ubiquitous video and photos on social media means that the farm sector cannot tolerate any sloppy operators anymore.

In the past it was the Department of Agriculture's job to get dodgy farmers to clean up their act. But when a video of a neglected animal goes viral on Facebook and tarnishes a whole sector, suddenly every farmer relying on the sector for a living suffers as a result.

It's not hard to see how these pressures might force further consolidation in the sector, but I wonder what role traditional farm representation will have in this future dominated by social media agendas?

Just before Christmas I attended the AGM of my local IFA branch in east Meath. The organisers decided to merge the AGMs for the three branches in the eastern half of the county, presumably in an effort to bulk up numbers for the guest speaker at the meeting.

Despite this, the number of farmers there totalled a miserable nine, including three branch chairs and former president Eddie Downey and his brother.

What does this say about the strength of IFA?

It's not as if there is a shortage of farmers in east Meath, or that they are so hard pressed for time that they cannot make it to one annual meeting a year. Maybe the era of meetings has become obsolete now that we can have a collective chat on Whatsapp? My fear for the Beef Plan group is that Whatsapp is the one thing that they've successfully tapped into, and have mistaken the support shown there as proof that Ireland needs another farm body. However, the break away of the hill farmers and malting barley growers from the IFA in recent years is more evidence of a fracturing of the farming landscape.

As yet another CAP reform package is hammered out, can the IFA really claim to represent all farmers with a single voice?

Any result that is better than the 5pc cut promised by the EU will be hailed a victory by the IFA, but I feel that we're missing an opportunity to regain some public support by embracing a suite of measures to make Irish farms more environmentally friendly, especially in relation to emissions.

Instead, we are going to squabble over who keeps the most for the next seven years, even though much of that money will leak out of the sector into over-priced inputs and land costs.

I was told this week that the former Fine Gael Minister for Agriculture complained back in the 1950s that he had to deal with 46 different farm groupings.

We may see history repeat itself. While every farmer knows there's strength in unity, the growing gulf between the enterprises makes a unified voice a nigh impossible task when it comes to one-size-fits-all policies like CAP.

Indo Farming

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