IN the baking midday heat in a rural Wexford farmyard, three small to medium sized dairy farmers have gathered to discuss the proposed 25% decrease in agri-emissions by 2030. It was perhaps fitting that the topic of climate change was being discussed in the midst of a heatwave, but first and foremost, all three farmers made it clear that they recognise the very clear and present threat of climate change.
However, the prevailing thought among them is that farmers have been tossed under the bus once more. Vilified in the climate change debate by a general public unwilling to give up their package holidays or abandon the second car. They feel that small family farms are being disproportionately penalised, while the big boys and big countries like Brazil will continue to grow and grow. And there’s certainly a point to be made. These men feel that they are custodians of the land they work and which has often been passed down from generation to generation.
At 70 years-old, Denis Power has already been on the go for six hours by the time we meet. He’s up and out of the bed for 6 a.m. every morning to be ready for milking on his farm near Taghmon. It’s a routine he’s followed for 50 years. However, there's a general feeling that his way of life is being eroded. With long hours and huge dedication required, with more and more restrictions emerging he feels that farming has become an extremely unattractive proposition for the next generation.
"They need to apply some common sense,” he says. “We used to keep more cows here, but we’ve cut back the numbers as it is because I’m getting older. But the emissions are going to be a problem."
With a few choice words for Green Party leader Eamon Ryan in particular, Denis doesn’t think too much of the actions being taken by the government.
"What they’re doing is they’re making a bags of it! They’re able to come after the family farm, but the big boys will find away around it. You can bring in all the rules in the world, but they won’t be affected by it. If Ireland in the morning got rid of every animal in the country, it wouldn’t make one ounce of difference to the amount of beef that would flow into Britain or anywhere else.”
A neighbour of Denis’s, Karl Winters feels that farmers are unfairly vilified.
"I feel these actions from the government are short sighted,” he said. “I want to make one thing clear. No one denies climate change. Climate change is happening and it’s all our responsibilities to minimise it as much as we can. But at the moment, I don’t want to say the environment is ‘trendy’, but it’s a very popular topic at the moment with people and urban people especially. But it’s been a concern of ours for as long as we’ve been farming. It’s been a huge concern to everyone living in rural Ireland that the beauty of our surroundings and our planet is protected.
"Farmers in this country have evolved with all of the technology in the last 50 years. Efficiency in the dairy business is as important as milking cows every day. Every farmer worth his salt searches every day for efficiencies to reduce energy usage, to reduce concentrate usage, to reduce nitrogen usage. Farmers have been aware of the situation with the environment for many years. We work in the weather every day. We see the climate change. But we have been working to become more efficient and that will continue with the proper support from government. We need the correct information though. We can’t progress if we can’t measure. We have to know what we can achieve and where everybody else is at too. It can’t just be landed on farmers. This has to be a community-wide and a worldwide discussion."
In terms of the numbers proposed, Karl is sceptical too. While the figure of a 25% reduction by 2030 has been thrown out there, there’s been little explanation as to how exactly this will be achieved.
"They’re saying that new technology etc we could achieve 18%, but that’s on the high side,” Karl said. “That leaves 7% and that can only be a cut in the herd of cows. The Minister for Agriculture came out in recent days and said he can envisage no cut to herds. They’re talking about these new technologies, but the Minister can’t tell any of us what the new technologies are. If any of us could tell the future, we wouldn’t be doing the job we’re doing. It’s a hit and hope really.”
This is a view shared by fellow farmer and neighbour Alan ****.
"“It’s definitely putting us to the pin of our collar. We know climate change is a real issue and we’re willing to do our best, but 25% is a big ask. We haven’t really come to see what that will mean on the farm for us. We know there’s sustainable measures we can take to bring us maybe three quarters of the way there, and they’re maybe achievable. But we’ve yet to see what proposals are there to bring us to the full 25%.”
The fear is that a cull of cattle is the only way to reach the target.
"That’s the fear among farmers. We’re just after come out of a milk quota which really handicapped farms. We weren’t able to become efficient. So going back to restricting production or restricting stock numbers on a farm, we’re not willing to accept that. Not in that form. Maybe a retirement scheme for farmers.
"We have to make management decisions every day on farms depending on weather and growth and we can’t be micro-managed, there has to be a bit of play there as well.
For Karl, if people want to see where the environmental damage is being done, they won’t find it on family farms in South Wexford.
“If you look around here or any part of South Wexford, it's green,” he said. “We can efficiently grow grass here nearly better than any place on earth. 99% of our meat is produced by grass based diet, it’s the most efficient way of doing it. In the national media we have talks of these ‘factory farms’ and ‘intensive farming’. The vast majority of farms are family farms. The average herd of milking cows is 80 cows. The average herd of suckler cows is 14 cows. This is not factory farming. Nobody has even defined what that is. Is it 500 cows? A thousand cows? There’s only a very small handful of those in the county and the country. It’s not the norm and we're being pitted one against the other.”
However, the Wexford farmers agree that they don’t put too much pass on what’s being written about farmers in the media or said about them in climate change debates.
"I don’t think a lot of farmers worry about it,” Karl said. “We’ve heard it all before. You hear, ‘oh the farmers are getting this grant and that grant’. The farmers are using these grants to protect the environment and to build sheds and to keep land in good order and all that protects the environment. I don’t think it’s been explained to people how important our dairy industry and agriculture in general is, especially in the south east here. There’s a vast amount of other businesses built up around the dairy and the cattle.”
One of the other issues which rankles with farmers is that, while Irish farmers are being asked to curb emissions by 25%, countries like Brazil are set to increase beef production by up to 35%. The feeling is that cutting back our production will make little difference in the scheme of things and will decimate our major export – food.
"At the end of the day, Ireland is a very small little speck on the corner of the Atlantic Ocean,” Karl said. “A few farmers have said to me, what about all the coal burning plants opening in China every week? Another pointed out that the last time the Green Party was in power they brought in low tax on diesel engines and now a couple of years later diesel engines are the worst thing again. Would you rather spend the night in a room with a diesel engine running or with a cow standing beside you?
"Our major export is food. A lot of income in this country comes from foreign multinational companies. That is intellectual property profits being routed through Ireland. There’s nothing be made, nothing being built, nothing being exported. With one change to the law in the Congress of the US, that’s gone. Or a change in EU taxation laws. Each of us as people play to our natural strengths. We are the most efficient producers of dairy and protein. We are in a position to feed a huge amount of the world’s population from this small island.
This is something which Aontú councillor Jim Codd also finds frustrating. Having come from a rural background himself, he’s all too aware of the plight of his farming neighbours in rural Wexford.
"If you look at the Mercosur trade deal, it means the cattle will simply be reared in South America, where there’s a much lower standard of animal husbandry. Where the overgrazing and the burning of the Amazon, the lungs of the earth, will continue to fulfil it.
"Meanwhile, our farmers are being told to cut food production at a time when food costs are already sky-rocketing and there’s war on the borders of Europe, and we’re reducing our ability to feed ourselves
"Climate change is a global problem and it can’t be changed by us rearing the cattle in Brazil. That’s farcical. It’s only a box-ticking exercise to make us look good and like the good boys at the top of the class in Europe.
"Rural Ireland has had more than enough mistreatment. It’s impossible to live here at the moment and we cannot continue to be demonised and take the brunt of the government’s decisions. These constant attacks on rural Ireland must cease. We need to survive out here.”
Cllr Codd feels there’s a lack of joined up thinking on climate change which has led to a demonisation of the agri sector.
“We in rural Wexford feel that farmers have been demonised and they’re very much the scapegoat,” he said. “It’s laughable when you think that I can fly a transatlantic trip to Chicago for actually less than it takes to fill my van at the local petrol station. Yesterday, Ryanair said that they’re no longer having €1.99 flights, however, people could be reassured that they’ll have ‘millions’ for €14.99, €19.99 and €24.99 flights. Meanwhile, our farmers take the brunt of this.
It’s a point Alan agrees with.
"I think there’s a whole broad spectrum of things that have to be done, not just farming,” he said. “I know even with the kids going to school there, they changed a few sections on a certain subject and all of the text books have to be renewed. Across the country, there’s tens of thousands of text books just being dumped. That’s just a small example.
"There’s an awful long ways to go across the board in this. We’re willing to do our bit, but we can’t be micro-managed and we have to be allowed to farm. I think this has been more of a political decision to move it from 22% to 25% and putting that into practice is going to be a real, real challenge.”