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Margaret Donnelly: Farm organisations’ dwindling membership numbers is becoming a serious issue for all farmers

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Farming Independent editor, Margaret Donnelly

Farming Independent editor, Margaret Donnelly

Farming Independent editor, Margaret Donnelly

In May 2015 the IFA had over 88,000 members, making it by far the largest and most powerful farmer lobby group in the country. However, a pay scandal later that year rocked the association to its core and damaged its reputation among farmers as well as those further afield.

As we look back five years on from the saga that convulsed the farming sector, it's worth examining where farmer representation stands today.

While on the surface IFA had a new president less than six months later, the fallout from the scandal continued far longer.

The significant but what looks like temporary emergence of the Beef Plan Movement last year showed that many farmers had lost confidence in IFA and felt it was no longer the powerhouse it once was.

As Beef Plan grew force, it drew from membership of other farming organisations. IFA's official membership numbers today stand at just over 71,000 paid-up today, while ICMSA's at 16,000.

However, the other farming organisations — ICSA, Macra na Feirme and the INHFA, which were no doubt too impacted by the rise of Beef Plan — declined to reveal their membership numbers to us when asked.

Their secrecy on the matter seems odd and begs the question: Do they think farmers not entitled to know? I certainly believe they are.

It should be remembered it was a lack of transparency for years in IFA that caused it huge reputational damage. It should have served as a warning shot to all farm organisations.

Despite the information deficit, it seems clear that more and more farmers, disillusioned with the current options, are opting to forgo membership of any farm group.

Meanwhile, as evidenced by the poor attendance at meetings and protests in recent years, it seems another large proportion just take out membership purely to obtain various discounts, be it insurance or otherwise.

This is clearly a serious issue for the farm organisations, but also for farmers too.

Recognition and respect for farmer representation was hard-won and it cannot be allowed to wither away into insignificance.

Getting young people involved is an overarching problem for the sector, but it is clearly an acute issue for farm organisations.

It's no secret that the age profile of 'active' members that attend meetings and are on the frontlines at every protest is growing as the years pass.

It's in this context that the significance of the Beef Plan Movement's ability to get younger farmers involved last year shouldn't be dismissed.

There are lessons there for traditional farm organisations.

The old ways of doing things can't continue or the membership numbers will continue to dwindle.

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