Farm Ireland

Saturday 25 November 2017

Time for us to get up and move on – queen of the plough

Anna May McHugh, businesswoman of the year, says we should forget expert groups and reports and focus on marketing Irish produce

Anna May McHugh

'While many other sectors crumbled in the recession, Irish farming has survived. The Ploughing Championships saw this and did not downsize'

A PHRASE that always stops me in my tracks is the "Celtic Tiger" era. As managing director of the National Ploughing Championships for the past 40 years, I have come face to face with our agricultural community in good times and bad times, and know that the majority of the farming community never really felt the impact of the boom – their income remained much the same.

While many other sectors of the Irish economy crumbled under the pressure of the recession, Irish farming has survived. The National Ploughing Championships saw this survival instinct at the start of the 'bust', and we did not reduce in size.

We lost a number of exhibitors, particularly in the motoring and construction sectors, but by and large, the exhibition and attendance figures remained stable.

A strong and resilient industry, the economic importance of agriculture for a sustainable and positive future cannot be underestimated. The stamina of the sector has been proven with survival of the foot and mouth crisis in 2001, the adverse weather conditions which impacted on crops in 2012, and the fodder crisis earlier this year.

Speaking specifically on agriculture following this week's Budget, Finance Minister Michael Noonan acknowledged that agriculture is our largest indigenous sector, employing 150,000 people, producing an annual output of €24bn and exports of €9bn to 160 countries.

Closer to the roots, there are almost 140,000 family-run farms in Ireland today, 66 per cent of Irish land is used for agriculture, Irish farmers produce enough food each year to feed 36 million people and one in every seven jobs in Ireland is farming-related.

Irish farmers are an essential cog in the global food security wheel and the industry is seen by many as a key part of the fiscal recovery strategy, with Food Harvest 2020 forming the roadmap to securing and expanding the industry in the years to come.

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Minister for Agriculture Simon Coveney has stated that the Food Harvest strategy calls for smart, green growth that will map the future direction of the agri-food sector up to 2020, a period that will be critical for the development of a dynamic and forward-looking industry.

The crucial role that agri-business plays in the effort to reverse the downturn and to progress nationally needs to be promoted and the National Ploughing Championships, which is a living, breathing example of all that is good about the sector, does this in numerous ways.

Sitting astride two big domestic industries – tourism and agriculture – the National Ploughing Championships is unquestionably the biggest three-day event in Ireland, and possibly the biggest outdoor agricultural event in Europe. We play an important part in the domestic economic scene year on year, by attracting thousands of stakeholders from all sectors.

A study carried by UCD, through the Smurfit School of Business in 2011, found that the event has an economic impact to the tune of €36m per annum; with key findings highlighting the fact that it creates a tax take of over €6.6m for the national exchequer annually. Personal shopping accounted for over €7m, with trade purchases in excess of €9.6m.

These figures highlight the huge economic positives that the event brings to the local community in the first instance, and the benefit to the wider economy through services, travel, transport, accommodation, VAT collected and secondly, export growth potential .

Agriculture and export growth in food and drinks far outpaces the rest of the economy. The Government intends to drive a very ambitious growth agenda for the agri-food sector and to increase the value of exports from the sector to €12bn by 2020.

That means increasing the volume of primary production in Ireland by one-third over the next decade, by adding 40 per cent value to our food production and increasing milk production in volume by 50 per cent.

It is encouraging to see that export growth has continued for a third year in a row, which is a very welcome contribution to the Irish economic performance in difficult times.

The National Ploughing Championships as an event is established, it is solid, and it has a proven record. Now, it is time to give something back. As Jon Huntsman Jnr said, economic recovery must be earned. And it will be earned by entrepreneurs and it will be earned by small businesses.

The people that take the challenge of setting up their own business in Ireland need to be supported by government schemes, particularly in the area of having a fallback if the business does not work. Many people supporting a family could not take the chance on being an innovator, even if they did have the idea.

This year in Laois, the National Ploughing Championships had international buyers and visitors from China, France, Britain, Finland and New Zealand, brought in in association with Enterprise Ireland. A priority for the National Ploughing Association, and an obvious opportunity, is to bring in even more buyer delegations to Ireland during ploughing week, so they can see Irish farming, food and tourism at its best. The National Ploughing Championships want to make the ploughing a forum to meet international markets.

To showcase Ireland to attract these international buyers and to highlight the resourcefulness and ingenuity that they admire so much when they visit, this year we livestreamed the event for the first time through, to give a positive picture of our fair land to the world, despite our difficulties.

And, we created an 'Innovations Arena', in association with the Farmers Journal. As part of this, we are sending one of the participants to the Lama Show (the biggest agricultural show in the UK) to give him another opportunity to be 'spotted' and develop his concept. There is no doubt that today, many young farmers who are farming average-size farms need an-off farm income to develop their farm and support their family, but many of these young farmers are becoming the 'entrepreneurs' of the future – identifying opportunities that they can turn into income.

The National Ploughing Championships have a positive impact, not only from a commercial perspective, but also from a rural and social perspective, and evidence of this can be seen from the variety of industries that participate in the event (1,400 exhibitors).

The event has a broad appeal, attracting attendees from all socio-economic backgrounds.

Farming dominates the Irish countryside and plays a deep and important role in our history, culture and psyche. With much of the rest of the economy in decline or stagnant, farming once again dominates many aspects of Irish life, including our environmental impact.

To continue to nourish and cultivate this sector, good governmental budgetary decisions, which support the overall vision for food and farming, are essential. The taxation system must support improved competitiveness and efficiency at farm level, and the Government must take action to reduce costs in agriculture.

It is essential that incentives for young farmers to stay on Irish farms, and not leave to farm elsewhere, are put in place, and it is vital that funding for farm schemes and investment programmes are maintained.

A number of new measures will be introduced in the farming sector following the 2014 Budget, as well as a review that will "identify what works and what doesn't" with the aim of redirecting the existing level of tax expenditure towards achieving maximum benefit, so we are looking forward to seeing how these impact in a positive way.

There are also some challenges ahead for us, including our small open economy and volatility in world commodity prices, which can have serious adverse consequences in terms of lower prices for produce and higher prices inputs; environmental commitments particularly on renewable energy and emissions reductions, dependence on direct payments, climate change and ageing farmers.

I believe that the road to recovery is not about more expert groups, more reports or more fact-finding missions. It's about taking what is working in each industry, nurturing it and marketing it to its real potential. There is no doubt that there is the need for Irish produce – we have the capability to grow or make the product, we have the expertise and charisma to sell it and we have the potential to recover, I just hope we don't get lost in the process.

The real damage was done to our economy in the boom/bust years that we will reel from for years to come, but we can't lie down and hope someone will pick us up. Get up, move on. We are the makers of our own destiny.

The benchmark of the National Ploughing Championships has always been to listen to what the industry is saying, and as we approach our 83rd year on the back of our biggest event yet, I think that we have listened well.

Anna May McHugh is managing director of the National Ploughing Championships and the 2013 recipient of the Veuve Clicquot Business Woman of the Year Award

Sunday Independent

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