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Tuesday 18 December 2018

Mike Brady: It's time for us to ditch the 'moaning farmer' image and embrace change

Agricultural consultant, Mike Brady.
Agricultural consultant, Mike Brady.
Photo: Getty Images
Mike Brady

Mike Brady

As 2018 draws to a close, it is good to reflect on a difficult year for many farmers and see what lessons can be learned.

It is often said there are two certainties in life, death and taxes; in farming the two certainties are weather volatility and price volatility.

Many farmers live in hope of the perfect year - that year when the weather is perfect, and prices are good, but the reality is that such years are few and far between.

In any case, the weather or price which is favourable for one farmer may be unfavourable for another farmer. For example, when feed prices go up, it suits the tillage farmer but does not suit the livestock farmer.

This 'perfect year' mentality, perpetuating constant disappointment, is the root cause of the 'moaning farmer' reputation our industry has acquired over the years. Of course, when there is a crisis, the 'moaning farmer' interview on TV or social media feeds perfectly into the voracious appetite for negative news stories in media outlets.

This leads me to the first of what I feel are the four big lessons for farmers from 2018.

Expect and plan for crisis events

Farmers who take a longer-term view and who expect and plan for weather and price volatility are much better able to cope with such events. Take our pig farmers for example. They are in dire straits financially due to the combination of low pig prices and higher feed prices. Many are producing pigs below the cost of production which is costing them hundreds of thousands in losses, yet there is minimal moaning and groaning as most are just dealing with it and waiting for the price to turn.

The pig and tillage farmers have been through this below-cost-of-production-price cycle many times; their tenacity and endurance stems from this experience.

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This is a situation our dairy, beef and sheep farmers have never experienced.

Yes, there have been times of low prices for milk, sheep and beef, but never to the extent of the huge losses in pigs and tillage.

Climate change is real

Having attended a number of events on climate change this year, it is very clear that climate change is real. The planet is heating up, which is affecting our weather patterns. In Ireland, this means we are getting more rain every year, temperatures are up and our summers are drier.

Humans are causing this change by increasing the concentration of greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the atmosphere.

The main culprit is carbon dioxide (Co2) from cars, transport and industry, but also nitrous oxide (No2) and methane (CH4) from agriculture.

It's vital to view the resolution of this problem in a global context, but it is clear we all will be required to put our shoulder to the wheel to mitigate the issue.

For farmers here, this will most likely become a reality with the next EU CAP reform measures. It is widely anticipated future payments and schemes will be linked to mitigation measures in this area.

On the ground, this is now influencing investment plans on farms. When 15 and 20-year bank loans are taken out to fund investments on dairy farms and profits of increased cow numbers are the main source of repaying these loans, it is important to factor in the possibility of additional compliance costs in respect of climate change mitigation.

To me, the challenges of climate change represent a huge opportunity for our farmers.

Our grass-fed systems of production act as a sink to clean carbon, and increased rain and temperatures are an ideal combination to grow more grass, so it may not be all bad news on the climate change front.

Embrace the information age

We are in the middle of the Information Age. The constant developments in technology and data are simply staggering. This is filtering through the entire agriculture and food industry, from farmer businesses right through to consumer choice.

It is vital all parts of the industry embrace and maximise this change.

Gadget mania and information overload are genuine risks, but the key is identifying the important data and technology to help you reach the goals of your business or part of the industry.

The digital-savvy will outperform the digital dinosaurs.

Future-proofing

Recent events suggest that Brexit is about to happen. There may be a transition period, but if it happens, it will be the single biggest event to affect our industry since entering the EU in 1973.

The Government and civil service appear to be prepared, having addressed the what-if scenarios.

However, this has had little, if any, influence on farmer decision making at ground level; life is continuing as normal.

The beef industry is particularly vulnerable and if beef farmers think the present poor price scenario is tough, a hard Brexit would change the industry for ever.

I'm not sure most beef farmers would have the resilience of pig and tillage farmers to survive such an event.

In farming circles, 2018 will probably be remembered for the summer drought, but lessons to be learned from this challenging year could be invaluable to future-proofing the entire industry. Every day is a school day.

Mike Brady is Managing Director at Brady Group agricultural consultants & land agents, email: mike@bradygroup.ie.

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