Life after farming politics - John Comer on his future

Adieu moo: John Comer, President of the The Irish Creamery Milk Supplier Association (ICMSA) on his farm in Ballyvary, Co. Mayo. Photo: Keith Heneghan/Phocus
Adieu moo: John Comer, President of the The Irish Creamery Milk Supplier Association (ICMSA) on his farm in Ballyvary, Co. Mayo. Photo: Keith Heneghan/Phocus
Louise Hogan

Louise Hogan

It's true to say that John Comer won't miss driving the highways and byways of Ireland after six years at the helm for the Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers Association (ICMSA).

Yet, the father-of-three admits that he'll miss the "healthy" late-night debates, the to-ing and fro-ing of ideas and, sometimes, the ardent views of the farmers that he has met around the country.

"From a personal capacity I'd be delighted to get back home for a while, yet having said that I thoroughly enjoyed my six-year term as president of the ICMSA. It was a great honour and a great privilage," says Mr Comer, with the race for his replacement looking like a one-man show - deputy president Pat McCormack is currently unopposed.

"It will be a case of going from hero to zero but I've come to the stage in life that I'm mentally capable of adjusting to that no problem."

A betting man might have fun on the odds on the length of time that he'll be back in the parlour on the dairy and beef farm in the village of Ballyvary, Co Mayo as other high-profile farm leaders have gone on to dip their toes into the world of business and politics too.

"I'll be there for the next month anyways," he jokes.

Amid questions over his political ambitions, Mr Comer quipped his late father always used to say 'Keep a cool head, an open mind and a clean shirt and you won't make too many mistakes.'

"I'll remain apolitical until December 19," he says, admitting he has had informal approaches from political parties. "I'd be telling a lie if I didn't say that I absolutely enjoyed advocating on behalf of the community and farmers and of people in general.

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"I felt it was very personally rewarding," says Mr Comer who was regarded as very capable and engaging among farmers during his tenure. He feels one of the most significant achievements of the ICMSA under his reign was borne out of the milk-price crisis of 15/16 when the voluntary milk supply scheme was brought into play.

"It was one of those concepts that wasn't accepted in any quarter, it was absolutely in my view misrepresented in the way it was explained," he says. "It was being flagged as quotas by the back door which wasn't the case at all. After a lot of lobbying and pioneering that mitigation tool, we got it through at European level. You can't but say it didn't help correct the milk price.

"The reality is in May 2016 Irish and European farmers were producing milk at 22c/l," he says.

He feels the intervention value should be raised to 28c/l, yet, once it falls below the cost of production, the voluntary milk scheme should kick in. He feels this will reduce the need to buy powder stocks.

"The key word that needs underlining at all times is voluntary. You cannot credibly ask a farmer that has invested heavily in terms of capital infrastructure, you can't turn around and say they can't milk cows," he says, adding it took €150m to take out almost a billion litres of milk which was value for money.

With the level of "dreaded volatility" in the markets post-quota, he says the ability of a dairy farmer to repay can become "compromised overnight".

As the milk price dropped to 22c/l, the ICMSA office was inundated with calls from many of the better farmers with "levels of anxiety that is not healthy for anyone" and there was no end in sight.

"The farmer has a responsibility to make him or herself as efficient as possible; after that they can do no more. Then national government has a huge role to play. We were extremely disappointed in the Budget," he says. He had thought ministers were favourable to the farm management deposit scheme as a "pragmatic tool" to help to mitigate against volatility.

With the new buzzwords of environment and climate change, he warns the "free market" won't work for the family-farm structure or the environment.

"The Commission or European Parliament can't be left off the hook and say they want it both ways. They want all the rigour of high standards, of traceability, of environmental sustainability and everything else, but the reality is the consumer wants all those too, but then when you ask them will they pay for it, the reality is no, because they want affordable to cheap food," he says.

The farming community needs to be more to the front in getting the message across on why the CAP budget is giving consumers excellent value for money. "In reality it is a consumer subsidy which is only channelled through the farmer; in reality if we didn't have it food would have to be more expensive," he says. "I'm fed up of people saying we have to do more with less."

He feels the Government should lead the demands that the remaining member states step up and fill the financial gap left by the British exit.

With prominent campaigns underway by part of the vegan community, Mr Comer says they are welcome to pursue whatever lifestyle they want but he does feel the social media campaigns can have a disproportionate influence on vulnerable groups.

Now, he feels labour will be the biggest barrier to expansion. "In terms of barriers I don't think we'll be snookered with nitrates I think we can facilitate that," he says, adding long-term leases had also helped deal with land shortages.

"I would certainly caution those in the mid-20s that are full of energy and enthusiasm," he says. "Don't compromise lifestyle too much unless you have a plan for labour."

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