Top IFA officials come from biggest farms
A Social Welfare system for the rich is how a former Irish Farmers' Association (IFA) activist describes an EU subsidies system which hands out millions of pounds to Irish farmers every year.
Figures issued last week by the EU Court of Auditors would appear to bear out the assessment: the most subsidised farmer of them all is also the country's biggest beef-processor, Larry Goodman.
He received almost £400,000 last year under a slaughter premium scheme and, as Tom Parlon of the Irish Farmers' Association told an Oireachtas committee last week, other agri-business and corporate interests are also among the big beneficiaries.
But they are not the only ones. Six family farmers, for example, received more than £150,000 each under the arable aid scheme.
But the IFA vigorously disputes the claim that the figures prove what some have long suspected: that its policies are dictated by big farmers who have a vested interest in keeping things just as they are.
A spokesman said it was to be expected that the most dynamic and successful farmers would rise to positions of leadership, but a profile of the organisation showed that no one running for office could promote an agenda which was to the detriment of smallholders.
He said 43 per cent of members had farms of under 45 acres; 47 per cent farmed between 45 and 100 acres; 8 per cent had between 100 and 200 acres; and only a little over 1 per cent had bigger enterprises than that.
"Thirty thousand farmers voted in the last presidential election. It's a democratic organisation and anyone pushing their own interests would simply be found out," said the spokesman.
However, Bertie Wall, a former senior IFA member who left the organisation nearly a decade ago, says big farmers who can afford to pay for outside assistance when they're on IFA business dominate the leadership.
"The current EU system is a social welfare system for the rich. If it was applied to society in general, then people like Tony O'Reilly would be the biggest recipients. But you will never get the IFA to admit that the system is wrong," he said.
So are wealthy farmers running the IFA and setting the agenda for smaller members who, though they march alongside their richer colleagues, have entirely different interests?
The organisation's own membership profile suggests that its president, Mr Parlon, and deputy president John Dillon, are among the elite 1 per cent. But neither could be described as "ranchers" or anything close to it.
Mr Parlon has a mixed-enterprise 200-acre farm, half of which is rented, while Mr Dillon has a 220-acre suckler cow and drystock enterprise, again nearly half of which he rents. Four out of five of the organisation's vice-presidents, the next rank in seniority, have medium-sized farms of 100 acres or less.
Why then is the IFA not pushing for a radical change in the system which will see 80 per cent of the £1 billion paid directly to Irish farmers this year going to the top 20 per cent of producers?
It's not that simple, the IFA spokesman insisted. "If you take cereal farmers, it was said this week that the top 4 per cent are getting 40 per cent of the funds. But of the 17,000 cereal farmers in the country, 12,000 are under 35 acres.
"These guys are clearly not serious, committed cereal farmers. Only 700 have more than 200 acres, and that's the minimum you need to be viable. The 4 per cent being talked about are those 700 guys. These are the commercially viable ones, but if you switch the supports away from them, you'll put many of them out of business without making the smaller ones viable."
The IFA says it does, in principle, support putting a cap on the amount any farmer can receive. That might at least have the effect of curbing pay-outs to those who pocket subsidies running well over £100,000 regardless of the profit from their enterprises.
Such farmers point out, however, that they're running large businesses with huge cost inputs.
One Kildare cereal farmer with 1,000 acres of cereals, qualifying him for about £110,000 in aid, said the cost of production could be as much as £400 an acre, allowing for rent and inputs such as fertiliser and seed. Winter wheat was now being sold at £95 to £97 a tonne, compared to £170 eight years ago.
The farmer, who declined to be named, added that his two sons and two full-time employees also made a living from the enterprise. He insisted that figures such as those published last week could not be read as personal income.
Others stressed that they had no difficulty with such large subsidies being paid to figures like Mr Goodman. The Co Louth beef magnate confirmed that he topped the list of those paid under a slaughter premium scheme designed to encourage farmers to hold on to their cattle until after the traditional autumn supply glut.
The top beneficiaries in that particular scheme are all agri-businesses, rather than family farmers.
"I'm no friend of Larry Goodman's," said one farmer, "but he buys up cattle around the country, and the premium he eventually gets is built into the price he pays, so the benefit is spread. In fact there's an argument to be made for all of these subsidies to be paid at the point of slaughter because the benefit filters down anyway."
Mr Wall, however, who was involved in 1990 in setting up an organisation dedicated to representing small producers, the United Farmers' Association, says the whole EU support system for agriculture is "daft".
Instead of keeping small farmers on the land and encouraging them to produce organic, natural food, subsidies are supporting the onward march towards mass production of cheap, bland products.
And while the IFA cites its call for family income supplement to be paid to those farm families most in need, Mr Wall claims this is more evidence of a drive to push small producers on to social welfare and let "the large producers, the `efficient' ones we're told," have the field to themselves.