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Helen Harris: Facts about farming are being lost in the social media blame game

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Grain farmer Helen Harris on her farm in Co Kildare

Grain farmer Helen Harris on her farm in Co Kildare

Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg in Davos, Switzerland (Markus Schreiber/AP)

Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg in Davos, Switzerland (Markus Schreiber/AP)

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Grain farmer Helen Harris on her farm in Co Kildare

We are just back from a couple of weeks with the ITLUS (Irish Tillage and Land Use Society) in Australia.

The biggest thing I took from the tour was that farming isn't easy anywhere. Where we are looking for less rain, parts of Australia haven't had any decent amount of rain for years. They have to stay within water quotas and pay for most of their water.

Yet I found the Australian farmers extremely optimistic. They were very quick to change crops when one wasn't working.

They would rip out a crop of low-profit sugar cane. Then they would invest heavily in irrigation and plant nut trees. Everything, including borrowing, was on a huge scale.

It really did us good to visit such positive farmers during our dark wet winter.

We are also members of four other farmers groups. It's great to get different opinions and views. January is the time of the year to get together and look to the future, be it with a foreign study tour, discussion group or tillage conference.

Some are more traditional discussion groups and we get to talk out what's happening and where we have gone right/wrong.

Others are looking more to the future and outside Ireland for solutions, and they try to work out where we are going as an industry and what are the changes coming down the line and how can we work with them

High on the agenda is the loss of Bravo and maybe Glyphosate in the future. What do we need to change?

Looking at the bigger picture, the power of social media over the last few years has been enormous.

Previously, if someone disagreed with something they saw or read, they would discuss it with those around them - now you can talk to the whole world from the phone in your hand.

It is very powerful and has had a huge impact on our industry without most of us realising.

Agriculture and farming had been seen in a very positive light up until recently. That has changed. Now all you have to do is put up a picture of a sprayer or a dairy bull calf and you could get a torrent of abuse.

I have tried and failed to explain to many non-farmers about all the good we do, but they only want to hear about the tiny minority they have heard about on social media that give us all a bad name.

The young environmental activist Greta Thunberg has been going around the world explaining that we need to change our behaviour and eating habits to save the planet as our climate changes.

Her message is clear - listen to the scientists. Yet when we try and say the same in agriculture, we get told that what's on social media is more important.

This makes it much more difficult for politicians to make decisions. Do they trust the science or vote with what's popular?

Another debate raging on social media is whether organic farming is so much better, for human health and the environment. I'm not an environmentalist or nutritionist, so I stay out of that debate but again, when I tried to explain to non-farmers that you can't just become an organic farmer overnight, they don't believe me.

You have to apply to become organic and most farmers don't get accepted. I think this year it was as low as 25pc that made the cut. It then takes years to change over. The odds are higher of being accepted into organic if you are tillage farming, but it's not guaranteed.

There is still a shortage of organic feed for organic animals here in Ireland. And I am told that in some other sections of organic production, farmers are struggling to sell their products.

Philip and Helen Harris are tillage farmers in Co Kildare. Follow them on twitter P&H Harris @kildarefarmer

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