The 'ranchers' are still setting our farming agenda

The tomb of Christopher Columbus in Seville Cathedral. PA Photo/Laura Paterson.
The tomb of Christopher Columbus in Seville Cathedral. PA Photo/Laura Paterson.

Jim O’Brien

I have connections in the south-west of Spain at a place called Palos de la Frontera, within a five-minute walk of the spot where Christopher Columbus boarded the Santa Maria to find the 'New World'.

On August 3, 1492, looking for a westerly route to India, he led his small fleet of three ships - the others were the Nina and the Pinta - out into the broad Atlantic.

The sailors manning the ships were mainly drawn from the local fishing community. These local fishermen were renowned for their knowledge of the Atlantic and their skills in ocean navigation.

The inlet from which they set sail, where the Rio Tinto meets the sea, hosts an interpretative centre with exact replicas of the three small vessels that crossed the ocean on that famous voyage.

Whenever I'm in the area, I take a stroll down to have a look at the ships, and I have to say, I'd be reluctant to sail around the coast of Ireland in any of the three, let alone set out to cross the ocean not knowing where it would lead.

Columbus is a big man around that part of Spain - his statues dominate the skyline and his name is attached to many a street, park and building. He is remembered. Few of his crew members are, though.

I am told their descendants still live and fish around Palos. But in reality, the world only remembers the big names: Ferdinand and Isabella, the King and Queen of Spain who gave political cover and finance for the expedition and, of course, Columbus himself.

The 51 men who sailed in the Santa Maria with the Genovese explorer, and the 18 sailors in the Pinta or the Nina, are but numbers.

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Above all, no one remembers the people these explorers encountered when they landed in the Caribbean islands; neither does anyone remember those they kidnapped to bring home as trophies to show their benefactors, all of whom died on the journey back to Europe.

And then there are the innumerable peoples in the 'New World' who succumbed to diseases the Europeans brought with them, such as smallpox, not to mention the centuries of war, occupation, theft and destruction wrought by white colonisation. The 'small people' are not remembered.

One of the most chilling descriptions of 'small people' to emerge in recent times was that invented by the spin doctors of Gulf Wars. 'Collateral damage' was the description used when a school full of children was hit by a misguided missile, or buses carrying civilians were mistaken for a military convoy and incinerated.

They say that history, and particularly the history of conflict, is written by the victors in language that only victors would use. Often, it is written by survivors in a dialect reflective of the victors' lingo.

The same is true of the experience and the language of success in the white, western world we inhabit. The narrative is written by the achievers and the successful, while little is heard from those who have become collateral damage in the rush to the top of the pyramid.

A recent study in Britain by the Sutton Trust and the Social Mobility Commission found that 39pc of top jobs in the UK are in the hands of privately educated people, who make up just 7pc of the population.

Sixty-five per cent of the judiciary is privately educated.


While the same might not be exactly true in Ireland, nevertheless the upper echelons of business and the professions have more than their fair share of alumni of an elite group of private schools that take 'free education' compliments of the state and give added value to those who can pay for it.

Our narrative is being shaped, written and controlled by the upper middle classes.

The same is true in farming. Last week, the latest CSO figures showed that farm incomes are among the lowest in the country. They are a fraction of what the legal profession makes and below what people engaged in social care assistance make.

Yet, it is the country's leading indigenous industry with a narrative that doesn't reflect the reality for many. The narrative around farming is written by those with most skin 'out' of the game rather than in the game.

The agenda is driven by those in the rancher league, while the plight of those struggling at the edges is simply used as a reliable arm-twister when the big boys want to squeeze more money from the political purses in Dublin and Brussels.

I have spent almost 20 years in and around agricultural journalism, and the commentary relied on for opinion is more or less the preserve of the farmer with more stock than he or she can count, more land than she or he can walk and whose family investment portfolios bulge with a range of international labels.

The suckler farmer with the two-wheel-drive tractor and the round bale streeling after it is rarely asked what he or she thinks; their phone numbers feature on few contact lists.

As it was in the beginning is now and ever shall be, the meek will be forgotten; from the fisherman skilled in sailing the Atlantic beyond Palos de la Frontera to the small suckler farmer in Pallasgreen skilled in the husbandry of land and animals, to the Haitian youth bundled into the briny hold of a crude medieval ship.

In their very different circumstances, they are collateral damage in a world where the story is written by those who succeed rather than those who just about survive.

Indo Farming

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