Philip O'Connor: 'Farmers deserve all our support because every day, three times a day, we need them'
There's a quote from American author Brenda Schoepp which succinctly captures the importance of farming: "My grandfather used to say that once in your life you need a doctor, a lawyer, a policeman and a preacher but every day, three times a day, you need a farmer."
If Brenda's grandfather visited Ireland today, he would find his sentiments don't seem to be shared. More and more farms and farmers are facing uncertain futures due to poor profitability and future generations choosing to enter more financially rewarding work rather than take on the family farm.
These stark realities are some of the key findings from Ifac's (Irish Farm Accounts Co-operative) recently published Farm Report 2019, which looks at life as a farmer today.
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It's one of the most comprehensive farm surveys undertaken in this country with more than 2,100 Irish farmers sharing their views on a variety of topics. The findings are also based on an analysis of emerging trends from the data of more than 22,000 farm accounts over four years.
While farmers remain optimistic about the future, their confidence is being dented by two key issues - succession planning and financial pressures.
Only 14pc of farmers surveyed have a clear succession plan in place. This is worrying given the age profile is rising - 56pc of farmers are over 55. A significant percentage (43pc) of respondents cited concerns about viability as their reason for failing to plan for succession. But it's important to realise that, regardless of viability, a farm is a valuable asset and failure to plan for succession can have substantial tax consequences for the farmer and his/her successors.
Similarly, many do not have a pension plan or life assurance, leaving themselves with no option but to continue working on the farm past age 65 to maintain a household income or rely solely on the State pension. Therefore, the next generation taking on the farm will have to make it provide an income not only for themselves but for their parents too.
In the current farming economic climate, that is just not possible. The net result is seen in the survey - 35pc of farmers are unsure if they or their family will still be farming in five years' time.
Is there any hope on the horizon of this seemingly bleak outlook? There is, but it will require changes to the way farmers think and operate and to our national appreciation of the importance of a viable sector and the tangible support provided.
More farmers will need to embrace the growing trend for farming not to be their sole source of income. This manifests itself in various forms of diversification, either from having an additional day job or from looking at other ways in which a farm can deliver income.
Some dairy farmers are producing and selling their own lines, from organic milk products to specialist cheese.
It's a case of looking at your skills and assets and seeing how they could be utilised to secure the viability of your core activity. With some added income comes the ability to feel more secure in implementing a succession plan and providing for your financial wellbeing in retirement.
Other trends include increased use of farming technologies. More agtech products and services will become available over the coming years and should be examined carefully to see how they could be helpful both in terms of time and income.
Broadband was also identified by the survey as important in running farms.
As for the external support which benefits our farmers, CAP continues to be a key factor. Any cut to subsidies would have a direct impact on the viability of many Irish farms.
Our farmers are also doing more than their bit for the environment. Many have been engaging in green polices for years, working to comply with and availing of a number of environmental protection initiatives and schemes.
This involves significant and expensive changes to the way they operate. They must continue to be adequately compensated. If we give people money to insulate their homes and drive electrical cars, we must also facilitate farmers in making the changes needed to deliver cleaner, greener, more environmentally friendly work practises.
Finally, I apologise but I have to mention the "B" word.
Although our survey was conducted in March/April at a point where the UK appeared to be edging closer to a 'no deal' Brexit, our survey showed massive uncertainty in what farmers think will happen as we have yet to see any predictions that shows any positives for Irish farmers.
More substantial, easily accessible information and support to enable our farmers understand and prepare for the potential impact on them is much needed. As is continuing financial support from Europe in the post-Brexit economy.
So, challenging times ahead. But if we at Ifac have learned anything in our 40-year history of providing advice and guidance to farmers and their families, it's that they are a resilient and determined breed and work hard to adapt to and overcome every challenge thrown at them.
And they deserve our support because we're not going to stop needing them three times a day.
Philip O'Connor, head of Farm Support at Ifac