Margaret Donnelly: It divided opinion but Greenfield's demise is bad news for every farmer

Teagasc Greenfield farm open day in Kilkenny. Photo: Roger Jones.
Teagasc Greenfield farm open day in Kilkenny. Photo: Roger Jones.
Margaret Donnelly

Margaret Donnelly

Mistakes can be costly, as any farmer will know, and news that the Greenfield farm programme may be coming to an end is not good news for farmers.

The farm, which is eight years into a 15-year project, is a limited company with three shareholders: Glanbia, the Agricultural Trust (which publishes the Irish Farmers Journal) and the Phelan family, who own the land. Teagasc has provided management services and advice.

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The farm aimed to showcase best practice in the conversion of a greenfield site into a fully functional dairy farm.

It was set up five years before the abolition of milk quotas when the three shareholders weren't the only people looking to the future. Worldwide demand for milk was projected to increase by 2.5pc per annum, and the Greenfield programme would examine every aspect of meeting this demand.

The new company leased 117 hectares and invested over €1m to develop a low-cost, labour-efficient farm infrastructure for a 300-dairy cow herd.

Profit generated from the business would pay down debt and reimburse the three equity partners' investment.

The farm's business plan stated that the business model that dairy farmers select for the future must be based around absorbing price volatility and weather shocks, and be robust enough to capitalise when milk price increases.

The project was always going to hit speed bumps and be controversial. That was its role, in many ways, but clearly what is a benchmark for success in other countries did not work for all shareholders in this set-up.

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It ran at a loss one year, while last year the farm came in for criticism after a report found management and staff were not adequately prepared for Storm Emma which left six cattle dead on the farm.

That said, over 5,000 people visited the farm since it opened its gates as a demonstration farm back in 2010, while as recently as last Friday, a group of young farmers were on site to see what can be done and learn from others' mistakes.

Thousands of farmers - including dairy farmers looking to expand or improve their own setup and non-dairy farmers eyeing up a possibly more financially viable future - flocked to the open days on Greenfield and many more visited on discussion group trips.

No farmer that left a Greenfield farm walk agreed with every element of the project, but every farmer did take some information home that was of benefit.

But the real value of the Greenfield programme was that it was there to make the mistakes that farmers can't afford to make, and highlight the highs and, more importantly, the lows such expansion might raise.

And you have to ask if some of the low points during the Greenfield programme raised uncomfortable questions for the sector and the Greenfield shareholders?

It seems like every week there is another story about a drystock or tillage farmer making the switch to dairy. Martin O'Sullivan addresses the viability of a 70-cow dairy herd on page 13 of our edition today.

But more than financial questions need to be addressed by any future dairy farmer. This week we also highlight how the weather severely hit dairy farmers' incomes last year.

And, while dairying is seen by many as a safer bet for the future, the Greenfield programme has undoubtedly highlighted that a switch can involve not just big investment, but big risks and realities that may not sit well with every farmer.

Many of the questions the industry faced in 2010, questions that the Greenfield dairy programme set out to answer, remain today.

More than ever, the Irish dairy sector needs to ask itself serious questions about its future and how it will tackle issues such as sustainability, climate change, labour challenges and animal welfare.

These issues will impact dairy farmers - and without facilities such as the Greenfield dairy programme, it will be left for each farmer to figure them out themselves.

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