Saturday 7 December 2019

The difference a man like Paddy O'Keeffe can make

PADDY O'Keeffe, who died earlier this week, was a man who made an immeasurable contribution to Irish agriculture.

He dedicated his life to improving the farmers' lot through the application of the latest technology and best practice, so it was very true to the man that his final wish was for his 89-year-old body to be given to science.

Since his early 20s, when he was charged with managing a 1,800-acre estate for a Dublin hospital, he brought a unparalleled passion and intellect to the sector.

Right up to the week before his death, Paddy was attending agricultural research forums and writing columns for his beloved 'Farmers Journal'.

The diminutive Corkman spent 37 years as editor of the 'Farmers' Journal' and it was through his involvement in this that he played such a formative role in the establishment of the cornerstones of the Irish agricultural scene of today.

The Irish Farmers' Association (IFA), with over 88,000 members and the publicly quoted insurer FBD, are just two of the household names that he helped get off the ground.

These, in turn, have generated millions of euro for farmers in better returns. And for Paddy, this was key – concepts that would allow farmers prosper. Of course, there were less successful ventures, such as the ill-fated takeover of Ireland's biggest meat processor, Irish Meat Packers, in the Seventies and a brief foray by the Agricultural Trust into the animal-feed business.

But Paddy had a keen appreciation of the fine line between success and failure in business. During the first two years of his tenure at the 'Farmers' Journal' in the early Fifties, the publication faced many cash crises and almost went to the wall.

He had personal experience of the realities of running farms too, with his own dairy-farm enterprise suffering hugely from disease issues and cashflow problems in the early years.

But he was also hugely resourceful and never lost sight of the big picture.

Hence, he facilitated a lunch meeting in the Sixties between a big cattle dealer and an ambitious young politician of the time, a certain Charlie Haughey.

The cattle man was keen to import a new beef breed but the Department of Agriculture was refusing to allow any imported animals at the time due to the risk of introducing foot and mouth disease.

Paddy wryly and wisely counselled his cattle-dealing friend that there was no such thing as a free lunch.

Spike Island in Cork subsequently turned into a quarantine for the importation of many new breeds of farm animals during the following decades.

Throughout his career, O'Keeffe championed not just the introduction of better genetics, but better management, more analysis and greater dialogue.

The fruits of that drive are on display on any drive around the country today. The black and white cows that are grazing the fields, the grass varieties that they are grazing and even the grazing systems that the farmers are using are all partly a product of Paddy's quest for improvement.

It was a journey that took him as far as New Zealand and almost every country in between. Invariably, he played the Pied Piper, with a gaggle of curious Irish farmers in tow.

It struck me this week that Paddy started his career in the 1950s, at a time when Ireland's economy was paralysed with Dev's closed policies of protectionism and isolationism.

It wasn't a good time, but O'Keeffe focused instead on what was possible. Once again, the country needs young dynamos that believe in the potential of our indigenous economy.

Passionate individuals can make a difference, no matter what sector they are in. But who are going to be the Paddy O'Keeffes of the 2010s?

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