Wednesday 16 October 2019

Hardly a tear shed for honest farmers as crisis pushes many over the edge

Billy Keane

Billy Keane

THE worst part is they are not even angry. There are no marches or rants from fiery demagogues in strong country accents or tractor blockades or stormings of ministers' offices. And there's hardly a word about the worst farming crisis in living memory.

Mother earth of the farming heartland is cold and drowned. The grass sits up like the spikes on a hedgehog's back. Where there is some growth, the fields are too wet to travel with heavy machinery needed for cutting silage. Cattle are starving and farmers and farm families are in the dykes of despair.

Yet if a couple of hundred people were sold dodgy apartments in our capital city or a couple of hundred more were flooded out of their homes, there would be a massive outcry with intensive news coverage.

We do not begrudge these people who have also suffered their share and more, but the numbers are very small in comparison to the scale of the farm crisis. It's a lot easier to cover a story in Dublin's Ballsbridge or Leeson Street than a faraway townland in west Cork or north Donegal.

But maybe there's a tendency to say this is just another case of crying wolf. Farmers are notorious for the poor mouth. That's not the case this time out. Listowel-based vet Sean Treacy told of the scale of the disaster.

"Four of my clients have gone out of business in the last few weeks and it's getting worse. The cattle are depressed. It's a form of bovine SAD. The cattle have been indoors since last August or even earlier in some cases. They are in poor shape physically and mentally. It's very sad to see.

"Farmers," he says, "would rather starve than see their cattle hungry."

It's a generational thing. Their ancestors built up the herd over 50 or 60 years. We cry when we lose a much-loved dog we have had for 10 years. Can you imagine the poor farmers who have to see decades of breeding sold off with no more of a requiem than the bang of a gavel on an auctioneer's table.

I couldn't get anyone to give a name to tag the words. I think some farmers might be in some way ashamed they are not able to carry on. That their link is the one that has broken the chain going back hundreds of years. They should not blame themselves. The odds were stacked against these brave men and women who worked so hard to keep afloat in the deluge.

How is it, that during our worst-ever recession, the weather has turned against us?

When I was a boy and the sun shone, I remember a few farmers discussing the case of a reckless dairy man who went to Spain for a week's holidays.

"They'll have his place up on the pole before long," said one man. Meaning the holidaymakers' farms would be put up for sale.

These men's holidays were one day in Ballybunion, for the Pattern on the 15th of August. They would roll up their trousers to the shins. Dip their toes in the surf and quickly withdraw as if it was a bath of acid. The annual holy day holiday was over all too quickly and it was a rush back home for the five o'clock milking by hand.

The farmers love their land and they love their animals but you'd often wonder if the handing over of a family farm, especially a small farm, is more of a burden than a blessing. A property tax.

The banks will not lend any money to distressed farmers. The numbers do not add up. The cost of a big bale of imported hay is around €145. One bale will last a herd of 60 cows just one day. That's if you can get a bale.

This morning there were cues outside Listowel creamery for the few bales that were available from Kerry Co-op, who are selling the hay at cost price. It was sad to see. Proud men all. Some of them had to go home empty handed.

My friend cried when I called to him yesterday morning. He is a small farmer who manages to keep going. Just about. One of the last of the smallholders. They are decent honest people, who only ever borrowed what they could pay back.

WHEN the farmer has a few shillings to spare, we all gain here in our little town. Contrary to the myth, farmers do spend money. The small towns will go soon if this keeps on. Is ar scath a cheile a mhaireann na daoine. People depend on each other. The cities will suffer too.

This tragedy must not happen, ever again. We have a national plan for snowy weather but none for wet weather. The co-ops, the farming PLCs, the Government, the banks, the EU and the farming organisations must act as one. Make a plan, or farming as we know it now will be finished in this country. A few big ranchers will own all the land – the banks will look after them alright.

"Farmers are a resilient bunch," says Mr Treacy. "The farmers are so used to ordinary disasters that they see this is as just a terrible disaster. A couple of fine days and they will be upbeat again. Their nature is to fight on and stay positive."

The priests prayed for fine weather at mass yesterday and as you look out the window this Monday morning, the skies should be blue as the mercury crawls slowly up the tube. Long may it stay that way.

They're tough, the farmers, but one or two more bad years and even the bravest, the luckiest and the holiest will have to sell up.

Irish Independent

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