Farm Ireland

Friday 23 March 2018

We must reap the resources of private farm consultants to meet the Food Harvest targets

Frank Castle offers Blackie the horse a pint at the Four Alleys
Bar during the annual Sams Cross horse fair at Clonakilty, Co Cork
Frank Castle offers Blackie the horse a pint at the Four Alleys Bar during the annual Sams Cross horse fair at Clonakilty, Co Cork

John Shirley

A new and improved format was tried for this year's Agricultural Science Association (ASA) annual conference, held recently in Tullow. In each session, rather than having the speakers rattling on in their own comfort zones, a moderator directed the topics and issues for the speaker panels.

Only Farm Minister Brendan Smith escaped this inquisitorial approach. It was no coincidence that his paper was the most boring part of the day, even if it carried important content.

The final session on the future of farm advisory services was ably led by dairy farmer/journalist Matt O'Keeffe.

Out of this, one statistic jumped at me -- that Teagasc advisers are now far outnumbered in Ireland by private farm consultants. And with Teagasc numbers continuing to shrink, the ratio could soon be two to one.

This has interesting implications for the future of farm extension and farm advisory in Ireland. In the recent Food Harvest 2020 report, almost every paragraph envisaged an extra activity for Teagasc. Given the respective numbers on the ground, maybe the Food Harvest 2020 promoters should be talking with the private farm consultants as well as Teagasc if they want targets achieved.

In reality, while there was input from 32 organisations, including BirdWatch Ireland, into the 2020 report, there was no input from private consultants, who claim to have 44,000 farmer clients on their books.

At the ASA event, they discussed farmer response to advice as measured by the adoption of new technology and the achievement of national targets. Why is there not a faster take up of the professional guidance on offer to Irish farmers?

ASA panel member Adrian van Bysterveldt came to Teagasc as a grass expert from New Zealand. He said that even in New Zealand, 30pc of farmers remained outside the influence of advisers. Such non-participants were described as laggards by another contributor.

Also Read

Underlying such comments is the assumption that all advice from Teagasc, or private consultants, is sound and advantageous to the recipient. Also, there is an assumption that the advisers have the monopoly on new technology and that their advice is always correct.

My belief is that the very first adopters and testers of new ideas and technology are most often the pioneering farmers. This was true for the New Zealand grass technology, for minimum tillage, grain crimping, new breeds of livestock, etc. After some farmers led the way, Teagasc then played an important role in evaluation and dissemination.

Across farming, there has always been a degree of farmer scepticism to professional advisers. Some of this is no harm. "Be not the first on whom the new be tried or the last to cast the old aside" is an old proverb that still applies. For instance, the farmers that resisted advice to plunge into the foreign property market are now relieved.

There was a time when an open day on your farm was seen as a prelude to a "for sale" sign going up. This could be explained by the fact that the open days were often held where a risk-taking farmer was pioneering something new. This "something new" may not always deliver on its promise.

The introduction of profit monitors has transformed the holding of farm walks and open days. This measurement identifies whether or not a farm is truly making profit. It reduces the risk of the "for sale" sign being mounted a year of two following a farm walk.

Getting farmers to change and take advice is a lot easier if the end product of the change is significantly higher profits. In this respect, the message on efficient grassland dairying is currently a much easier sell than the message on efficient drystock farming.

At the ASA conference, it was concluded that the setting of national targets for farm output focused the industry on trying to achieve these targets, but that private consultants could provide the detailed advisory service.

The Food Harvest 2020 report has some very ambitious targets for Irish farmers, especially the 50pc expansion in milk output. It is nonsense to expect that Teagasc can reach on even a fraction of the jobs proposed for it in the report. The resources of private consultants should also be harnessed.

I believe that the organisation representing the private operators has already written to Mr Smith offering to get involved in meeting the Food Harvest 2020 targets.

Irish Independent