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Sunday 21 January 2018

Opinion: The spark has gone out of the EU's 'marriage' with farmers

The Nitrates Directive has created a lot of difficulties for farmers around traditional farm practices such as manure spreading
The Nitrates Directive has created a lot of difficulties for farmers around traditional farm practices such as manure spreading
Ann Fitzgerald

Ann Fitzgerald

We had our Bord Bia Quality Assurance inspection last week.

Thankfully, we passed.

But, boy, was it stressful.

We got caught out last time round and were determined not to let that happen again.

In fairness, the inspector was grand. He had a job to do. But, for the two hours he was around, we were all on tenterhooks. Especially when he came into the house to check the paperwork.

It being mid-term, the girls were off school. Our anxiety must have rubbed off on them because they were tiptoeing around, barely daring to whisper.

When it was all over, Robin announced that we had got 99pc. So hurrah! That's that out of the way for another 18 months.

It got me thinking about the nature of farmers' relationships with the various supervisory bodies, including Bord Bia, county councils, the Department (on behalf of the EU) and others which have emerged/grown out of our relationship with the EU.

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I may be a bit naïve here, but it seems to me that the prevailing feelings of Irish farmers towards the EU when we joined in 1973 were excitement and hope.

It was like a new marriage, where nothing is too much trouble for either party, such is their desire to please the other.

However, from the 1980s onwards, with each new review of the Common Agriculture Policy, the relationship seemed to stale a little.

Why did it happen?

Farmers feel the message keeps changing.

Various CAP reforms have taken us through payment coupling and decoupling to partial coupling; the introduction to milk quotas and their abolition 30 years later; they have taken us through Setaside and Greening.

When the European project started out, food security was at its heart and the stated objectives included the harmonisation of primary produce prices.

The EU now sees land as not just where food is produced, but as having a broader role, in terms of the environment and climate change.

Farmers are great when it comes to doing things they can see the sense of what's at stake. They are not as good when the objectives are more complex and less tangible.

Both sides feel disappointed with the other's behaviour.

Let me give an example from the farmers' side.

September 15 was the last day for spreading fertiliser, under the Nitrates Directive. It was forecast to be bucketing for the few days before that but dry for the following few days. And the forecast was right.

Surely it would have made sense to extend the spreading period by a few days. It's a little thing that would have meant a lot. The EU has told us that Calendar Farming was introduced because farmers were performing such tasks in unsuitable conditions.

But are those who broke the previous less prescriptive rules more likely to obey stricter ones? The rules were adequate, enforcement is the issue.

Another problem is that each reform has brought more complexity and bureaucracy.

What makes this all the worse is that every reform sets out to simplify things - current commissioner Phil Hogan even made it his "ultimate objective" - but there is little sign of that happening yet.

On top of all this is the belief that too much EU money ends up in the pockets of the grocery giants, rather than benefiting either farmers or consumers.

The marriage has gone from being happy, to serviceable, to fractious.

So could we be heading for divorce? Nah. We couldn't afford it.

A new EU Commission Communication on the future of the CAP is due to be published on November 29.

Maybe I am being naïve (again!) but what I would love to see in it is an effort to renew relationships with farmers, to restore some goodwill and vim.


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