The strife of farming life
Paul Deering reports on a meeting of farmers hosted by the IFA in the Sligo Park Hotel which heard how the sector is facing a crucial few years ahead
Cuts to payments, young people with no interest in becoming involved in the sector, absent, and what is actually an active or genuine farmer, were just some of the issues which came up for discussion at an IFA gathering last Monday evening.
The meeting was called to discuss the forthcoming new Common Agriculture Policy (2021- 2027) which is proposed by the EU to cut from €408 billion to €365 billion and the nearly three hour meeting also became a much broader one with several topics being touched upon which gave a good picture of what is facing the sector in the coming years in the North West.
Fears of payments being stopped to part time farmers, Brexit, the growth of forestry, regulations and compliance being expected of farmers which is eating up scarce finance, all came from the floor as the IFA's top table fielded them as best it could.
At one stage the meeting threatened to descend into a debate about whether the IFA was truly representing the farmers of this region but that suggestion by the only TD present, Martin Kenny didn't get this particular debate off the ground.
The IFA President Joe Healy was quick to defend the body, insisting it was a lobby organisation and that it was up to TDs like Kenny to put the case for the IFA to Government.
And, Healy insisted the IFA was doing a good job at lobbying. He spoke of how the organisation had used "every trick in the book" to try to stem the tide of Brazilian beef imports to the EU.
In 2017, Brazil supplied the EU with over 140,000 tonnes of beef and veal.
And, it's an Irishman, Phil Hogan who is in the hotseat in Brussels as EU Agriculture Commissioner where incidently the IFA also runs a full time office whose officials he must surely see on daily basis as the new CAP nears finalisation.
So what's a genuine farmer? Hard to believe but that has become an issue for the EU in 2019.
Deputy Kenny suggested it was any farmer who got up every morning and goes out and did his best but the EU has a broader definition and so has the IFA.
Of course the context is in terms of qualifying farmers for payments.
Hogan sees a genuine farmer as one where no support is granted to those whose agricultural activity forms only an insignificant part of their overall economic activities or whose principal business activity is not agricultural, while not precluding from support pluri-active farmers.
The definition shall allow to determine which farmers are not considered genuine farmers based on conditions such as income tests, labour inputs on the farm, company object and/or inclusion in registers.
The IFA in response says direct payments must go to active farmers using objective criteria such as production and/or provision of public goods. It also supports the inclusion of part-time farmers.
The EU Commission is proposing mandatory capping with reductions of 25% to farms receiving between €60k to €75k and a 50% reduction to farms receiving between €75k to €90k and at least a 75% reduction to farmers receiving between €90k and €100k. In Ireland, 945 farms receive over €60,000 and 191 get over €100,000.
The IFA does not want to see cuts in direct payments to genuine farmers and says convergence and redistribution cannot erode the viability of active farmers and must be voluntary as opposed to mandatory at member State level.
At present, the proposed cut of 5% to Ireland's CAP budget is €97 million but the IFA say that with the 2% EU proxy rate of inflation is applied, the real cut amounts to 17% for Ireland.
The IFA's Rural Development Executive, Gerry Gunning stressed that the CAP budget must increase to cover the costs of inflation and to pay for any additional requirements placed on farmers. and it has made this clear to the Government and Commissioner Hogan.
The IFA President Joe Healy told the gathering in The Sligo Park Hotel that CAP and ANC were very important payments to Ireland and the West of Ireland. "We have fought a long campaign on CAP during the past year and we are constantly highlighting that we wil not accept any cut to CAP." And, he highlighted that CAP was not just about "a grant to farmers" but was of huge benefit to the EU's 500 million consumers.
"The bottom line is that no matter how politicians dress it up, this 5% cut is still a cut," he said.
He added that the IFA had received assurances from Government and that at European level, four countries "were digging in their heels" on the issue, the Netherlands, Sweden, Finland and Austria but the IFAQ was determined to bring CAP back to where it want its for the next round.
The fight for CAP soon became a fight for survival when the discussion was opened up to the floor.
Michael Dowd was straight to the point. There were lots of figures on the presentation as there were in the past but he said the bottom line was that "we are in death row."
"Most farmers are over 40 and there isn't much encouragement for younger farmers to come in. It's really serious with farmers selling up and no interest in anyone taking them up.
"We are not making any headway with payments. Good farmers are working for ntohing in this part of the country. We would want to wake up before the game is over," he said.
He added that farmers were getting more in headage payments 15 years ago.
"Good, decent farmers are on the breadline and that is more important than some of the figures you have up there on the board," he said.
One of only two women in the room said forestry "was taking over" and gave an example of 190 acres being proposed for planting.
"We can't compete....what hope is there for young people in acquiring land?" she asked.
Healy spoke of the proliferation of forestry in North Leitrim alone and how it was difficult to compete with forestry companies.
Sean Connaughton from Boyle said farmers had got used to payments and didn't want to give them up but that tough decisions needed to be made if young farmers were to be brought in.
"Payments need to follow production and that makes it fairer," he said, adding that it was like a football team, new blood had to be brought through to replaced the silverhaired men.
Healy's response was that the point having been made elsewhere was that if payments followed production this would be more beneficial to farmers elsewhere and other than in the North West.
Deputy Kenny said front loading is what farmers in this region wanted to see. As for active farmers, the vast majority he knew worked hard and "didn't sit at home."
The forestry programme, he claimed was destroying agriculture in areas of natural constraint. This was because it was extremely profitable for all. Most damming of all, he said a lot farm families did not see "a sense of future" in farming.
Cloonacool farmer Eddie Davitt said he was pretty disappointed with the ANC after getting the review up and running.
"It was disappointing to see the review and that we came out of it so poorly in this region. I believe we jumped in and accepted it too fast from the Minister," he said.
He also criticised what he termed were "the bloodsuckers" surrounding the present payments schemes, the planners, consultants and he even lumped in Teagasc in the same bracket. It all left farmers with little money by the time they got their money.
Mr Davitt also went on the say the last CAP was a disaster.
"We were sold out, especially on Pilar 2," he said.
He claimed suckler cows were already gone out of the region and all sorts of poor quality animals were being “dumped in the meat factories.”
And, he had one final word for the top table. “One thing I ask you Joe (Healy) is to ensure that in the next around of CAP the schemes are not distributed like the last one.”
IFA wants less inspections and reduced penalties
The EU Commission proposes that funding for the CAP is reduced by around 5% - due to less contributions, with a future union of 27 members.
The Commission says income support will remain an essential part of the CAP. Part of this, basic payments will continue to be based on the farm's size in hectares.
However, the future CAP wants to prioritise small and medium-sized farms and encourage young farmers to join the profession.
The Commission proposes: a higher level of support per hectare for small and medium-sized farms;to reduce the share of direct payments received above €60,000 per farm and to limit payments at €100,000 per farm, with a view to ensure a fairer distribution of payments; a minimum of 2% of direct support payments allocated to each EU country will be set aside for young farmers, complemented by financial support under rural development and measures facilitating access to land and land transfers; EU countries having to ensure that only genuine farmers receive support.
The European Commission also proposes a more flexible system, simplifying and modernising the way the CAP works. The policy will shift the emphasis from compliance and rules towards results and performance.
And, the EU emphasises that farmers play a key role in tackling climate change, protecting te environment and preserving landscapes and biodiversity.
In its proposal, the European Commission sets high ambitions on environmental and climate change.
The IFA is pressing that the new CAP must deliver on the political commitment for simplification at farm level.
The IFA wants less inspections, increased tolerances and reduced penalties. It also wants a 'close-out' system to allow farmers time to correct unintentional non-compliances without incurring penalties. The IFA also wants to see all farmers get paid their advance payment by mid October.
Commissioner Hogan has rejected a European Court of Auditors' searing opinion on his landmark proposals to reform CAP.
In the evaluation report the EU's independent external auditor stated that the proposed CAP reform "falls short" of the EU's ambitions for "a greener and more robust performance-based" approach to the sector.
Although the auditors acknowledged that the proposed reforms include tools to address environmental and climate objectives; it contends that these are "neither clearly defined nor translated" into quantified targets.