Ploughing: Farmers battle with low-price landscape

Falling commodity prices are forcing young people away from the fields

With Brexit, falling milk prices and reluctance of the next generation to take over family farms is it all doom and gloom in the agriculture industry?

 

Farming has never been easy, but sometimes it is harder than it has to be. The National Ploughing Championships is as big as ever. There is no shortage of exhibitors and none either of potential buyers, but things are not all what they seem on the surface.

The mood among farmers at the championship was at odds with the clement autumnal sunshine of the first day. It was decidedly grim.

Farmers are assailed by many worries. Many of them fret about their own future in the industry; others are certain the next generation will not be involved because it is too difficult to make a living.

Low commodity prices for milk, beef and cereals have left them struggling to make a living. Cereal prices have been low for four years; two years in the case of milk. Beef prices too are on a downward trajectory.

“Usually there would be one sector of the farming community down, but at the moment all sectors seems to be on a low,” says Kathleen Leonard, whose husband is a beef and dairy farmer outside Co Offaly.

Like many people engaged in farming, she wonders why any young person would want to farm at present given the struggles and uncertainty involved.

Compounding farming anxieties is Brexit, which has put off almost 40 per cent of them from investing in their farms, according to an Irish Examiner-Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers Association (ICMSA) survey. Some 80 per cent of farmers believe that Brexit will cause a further drop in commodity prices.

The prospect of Ireland’s biggest export market for food being in the crossfire of a struggle between the UK and the EU constitutes the worst nightmare for a lot of Irish farmers.

Lost harvest

Against this backdrop, farmers are in no mood to accentuate the positive.

The biggest bugbear for dairy farmers has been the price of milk. Dairy farmer Ken Jones from Kerry milks 70 cows. The price of a litre of milk, currently 28 cent a litre, does not cover the costs of production. “We’re on a negative income. I’m losing money,” he says.

He is entirely dependent on the single farm payment to make ends meet. Other farmers express similar sentiments.

Another Kerry farmer, John Dwyer from Killorglin, describes the price of milk as “diabolical”. He needs 32 cent a litre to make his farm pay, which is four cent a litre more than he is being paid.

The squeeze on commodity prices is not a new phenomenon, but farmers say it is getting worse and creating serious cash flow problems for them.

Pat Gormley, a retired beef farmer from Tuam, Co Galway, says he does not see young people at the marts anymore: “It’s all old people.”

These are difficult times for beef farmers too against a backdrop of further consolidation in the beef industry.

Brexit uncertainty

The price per kilo has gone from €4 to €3.75-€3.80, wiping out tiny margins. “It doesn’t make any economic sense to rear them up to big cattle,” he says.

“The trade has gone really bad in the factories.”

Bachelor brothers John and Jim Staunton from Co Kilkenny have been coming to the ploughing for decades. John attended his first in 1958. It was held in February. He does not have fond memories of it.

“The conditions were horrendous,” he says.

It was a good summer, he says, for beef farmers like himself in the east of the country.

The sun shone and grass growth was exceptional.

“There was never a bed of roses,” he says of farming which, as ever, is as much a vocation as an occupation.

“If you’re in farming, you stay in it. You do it to the best of your ability. If you do that, you should be a happy man.”

His brother Jim has taken a less phlegmatic line. Beef farming, he says, “is an absolute disaster at the moment. There’s no margin in it.”

Drift abroad

Mullingar

The message from farmers on the ground is the same as the one coming from the major farming organisations. All feel the Government will have to step up to the mark in Budget 2017 or many of them will go out of business.