Carthy joins Mary Lou McDonald at ICMSA AGM
Cavan Monaghan Sinn Féin TD and spokesperson on Agriculture, Matt Carthy, attended the AGM of the Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers Association with his party leader, Mary Lou McDonald, this week.
The pair were present in Castletroy, Co. Limerick, to present their party’s vision for Irish Agriculture to the Dairy farmers present. Deputy McDonald gave a detailed account of the Sinn Féin policy platform telling those present that ‘farmers need change as much as anyone else’. Her address was followed by a lengthy question-and-answer session which dealt with a vast array of issues of concerns to the farm representatives present.
In her keynote address to the event, Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said:
“I thank you all, and in particular your president Pat McCormack, for the invitation to join you at the ICMSA AGM. I am delighted to be here alongside the Sinn Féin Agriculture spokesperson, Matt Carthy.
“I note that there has been surprise expressed by some at my attendance here today.
“There was no need for surprise.
“Sinn Féin have a long track record of representing farmers and championing Irish food production. It was no accident that our party selected Agriculture as one of the two Ministries that we took in the northern executive.
“Or that we retained that Ministry for a full decade. Or that one of those to hold that position was Michelle O’Neill, now First Minister Designate.
“Sinn Féin want to see better and a fairer Ireland. That can only be achieved with balanced regional development. That means that we need economic generation that sustains our towns, villages and rural communities. And the one sector that has proven itself up to that task, again and again, is Agriculture.
“You won’t be surprised either to hear me confirm that I want to lead the next government. I want that to be a government of change. I want farmers to be part of that change and I believe farmers deserve and demand change as much as any other section of our country.
“It is time for a government that is committed to reversing the legacy of neglect and the disrespect shown to farmers and to our rural communities for decades.
“I believe that the vast majority of Ireland’s farmers will be much better off under a Sinn Féin-led government.
“The story of agriculture in Ireland has been a positive one, albeit one which has faced and continues to face big challenges.
“Agriculture is the sector that stays put. Unlike other sectors, farmers don’t up and leave at times of financial strife. Farmers help us out of it. Each of Ireland’s 137,500 farms contribute to the life of their communities; generating economic activity, supporting other local businesses, funding local and sporting groups.
“It is the family farm model that makes Irish agriculture different. It is a model that Sinn Féin are committed to. The 278,000 people working on farms, the 170,400 others employed in the Agri-food sector, the €15.4Billion in food exports are all things that need to be protected and supported.
“We recognise that Irish Agriculture faces many challenges.
“Your sector is at the coalface of any outworkings from Brexit, the full extent of which remain unknown. Climate Action will result in changes across every facet of our society and no industry will be immune from change.
“Market volatility and extreme price fluctuations can have a profound and immediate impact. I won’t need to tell anyone here of the effects of the illegal Russian invasion of Ukraine.
“Through all these challenges, government must be partners of our family farmers.
“While Sinn Féin make no secret of and make no apologies for our support of smaller and poorer farmers, those in peripheral regions and on marginal land, those in our suckler and sheep sectors; nor do we fail to appreciate the importance of our Dairy sector.
“Yours is a sector that has seen significant growth in recent years. It should be noted and appreciated that much of this growth occurred at a time when very little else within our economy was growing.
“Not to put too fine a point on it but the Dairy and wider Agri-food sectors helped Ireland to come through the financial crisis faster than we otherwise would have done. All in all, we now have a dairy sector that is valued at €13.1Billion generated by some 18,000 farmers.
“That is not to say that Dairy farming is some new endeavour in Irish agriculture. As far back as the 18th century Ireland set the global price for butter, with the Butter Exchange having been located in the Firkin Crane building, Shandon St Cork City, until 1925.
“Indeed, the biggest difference between 1915 and 2010 was that the number of farms in this state decreased from 359,700 to 139,860, while average farm size increased from 14 to 33hectares.
“Throughout this period dairy was a crucial component and central part of our agricultural sector and is as much a way of life as any other farm system.
“However, it is true to say that the lifting of quotas has led to a significant expansion of the Dairy sector. This, of course, was driven by government policy but also by the fact that Dairy is a profitable sector compared to beef or tillage, for example.
“But, while Dairy is profitable for many, it’s also a case that the success of the sector hasn’t exclusively translated into benefits for farmers – in many cases expansion was embarked on only to stand still – like other farm systems, many farmers are producing more foods for similar incomes as to their parents and grandparents as margins are continuously squeezed.
“Dairy farmers are familiar with change because the dairy sector has seen lots of it. And there will be change in the future.
“While change will come, it will be the role of government to ensure that we continue to maintain that preeminent reputation for a high-quality sustainable product that has made our country a world leader. To ensure that our farmers can remain on the land producing that food with their families.
“It is a statement of absolute fact to say that, in order to do this, farmers must be able to make a decent living. I acknowledge the risks and the investments you have made to date. I recognise the pressures that even a short period of market volatility can have.
“I note that Farmers, Co-ops and organisations such as the ICMSA have shown that you are willing to bring progressive, thought-out proposals to the table, including the establishment of a rainy-day fund or the introduction of Cost Index Clauses to contracts.
“Sinn Féin believe that governments have often underappreciated and undervalued farmers.
“The number of farmers has been decreasing on an ongoing basis; the age profile of farmers is increasing; there is not enough being done to encourage young people and women into the sector and there is not sufficient recognition of the existing contribution of women to farms.
“Family Farm Incomes are stagnant or decreasing in real-terms, your position in the market-chain is incredibly weak; farmers are price-takers in every sense. CAP supports have reduced drastically in real terms. All of this will make responding to the challenges I outlined more difficult.
“Chief among those challenges will be Climate Action. Let me be clear. Sinn Féin is committed to ensuring that Ireland meets our emission reduction targets.
“We know that every sector will have to play its part, including Agriculture, and that some hard decisions will have to be made.
“It is not an either or. My ambition is that Ireland is a world leader in both Food Production and Climate Action. Where we differ from the current government is that we will ensure that the process is just and fair.
“We recognise that increasing the cost of driving to work or dropping your children at school, through carbon taxes, when there are no alternatives but to use your car doesn’t help the environment – it just makes people’s lives harder.
“Likewise, pointing the finger at Irish farmers and blaming them for our climate failures, as some in government are prone to do, isn’t just wrong – it is unfair and counter-productive.
“Remember, the three parties that make up government, between them, have never reached a single Climate target that they themselves set. For them to point the finger at ordinary farmers and suggest that it is your fault is disingenuous in the extreme.
“During the summer we heard much debate about sectoral ceilings, specifically for agriculture. The Department of Agriculture, we were told, wanted a 21% target. The department of Environment wanted 29%. Neither could outline what either figure would involve in real terms.
“They split the difference and landed on 25%. That is now the legally binding target for 2030. But farmers are still none the wiser as to what that will mean for their farms. If there is any prospect of achieving this target, then there must first be recognition of the climate work farmers have already done on their farms.
“Then it must be clearly spelt out what actions are required at farm level so that farmers can start planning now.
“The Irish dairy sector is one of the most sustainable in the world. Farmers have shown that when the correct guidance and resources are provided, they will take the necessary initiatives.
“This has been seen in the growing use of Low-Emission slurry spreading, Genetics, Milk Recording, Renewables, Mixed-species swards, forestry and bio-diesel on farms across the country. In all of these areas we can still go further. In fact, the failure to fully utilise emission-reducing technology lies not with farmers but with government’s apparent inability to plan and support.
“I have said that Ireland must endeavour to become energy independent. Part of this process must also involve the use of solar technology on buildings on every farm. That will only happen if government lead a strategy to encourage farmers to do so and if they make it easy to store excess energy or sell it into the grid.
“Some have condensed the entire Climate debate to a discussion on the number of cows on our island.
“You all, of course, know that it’s not just as simple as that.
“For one, it would do nothing for global emissions if products derived from Irish cattle were simply replaced on world markets by beef or dairy from higher emitting countries.
“Secondly, where practises employed on farms can effectively reduce emissions they must be used to full effect.
“And, thirdly, to those who suggest that farmers must move from Dairy – they need to recognise the financial realities as to why that sector has increased over the past decade; if they want Dairy farmers to grow crops and fruit and vegetables then there must be a viable economic rationale for doing so.
“The answer will never be to do nothing. It will always be to do the things that make the most difference in reducing emissions, protecting our water and air quality, producing top-quality food and re-vitalising our rural communities.
“So, to set out how Sinn Féin will approach these matters.
“In the first instance we want to ensure that every farmer knows what is expected of them by providing an appraisal of the current carbon emission, storage and sequestration on each farm and then delivering long-terms rewards for farmers to make improvements.
“Our alternative budget outlined how we would make immediate investments in areas such as low-emissions technologies by providing grant aid to all including farm contractors; and organics by working to deliver a premium market so that we can reach beyond the pathetic targets set by government.
“If I am in a position after the next election – I will be instructing a government approach that will aim to reverse the continuous cuts to the European Union CAP budget.
“The current government agreed to an EU budget deal that is bad for Ireland and bad for Irish farmers.
“During a period when Ireland will be contributing a net €2.5Billion euro to the EU, the portion of that budget allocated to the Common Agriculture Policy has been reduced to just 30% from 37% in the last round and 73% in 1985.
“While government have been forced to increase co-financing to make up for the bad deal they agreed to, the fact remains that when inflation is accounted for the funding available to Irish farmers will be much less over the next five years.
“This is at a time when farmers will be asked to do much more.
“If we expect farmers to make the type of changes and investments that will be necessary over the next generation then they need more support, not less, and that is why work at EU level to undo the downward trajectory of CAP supports must start now.
“No political party has all the answers to the big questions that are coming our way.
“The secret, as far as I am concerned, lies in listening to those at the coalface of our family farms and the communities that depend on them.
“That is why Sinn Féin will establish a Commission on the Future of the Family Farm, bringing together stakeholders and experts tasked with bringing forward proposals on generational renewal, strengthening the position of farmers in the value chain; opportunities for diversification, and other measures aimed at allowing our farms not just to survive but to thrive over the rest of this century and beyond.
“Government can only deliver if we work in partnership with those who actually do the work. In government, we will work with farmers and with organisations such as the ICMSA, across every department, to secure your future.
“I know that you recognise the need for change. That your children are impacted by the Housing Crisis as much as anybody else’s, that your families face the same health waiting lists as others, that your home is impacted by the cost-of-living crisis as profoundly as every other home.
“I know too that your sector also needs a change in government approach. One that puts our family farmers at the heart of the decisions that will impact on them.
“I also recognise that it is our job to convince you that Sinn Féin will affect changes in all these areas and that we will so in a manner that allows your children and grandchildren to live and work in the community they were raised, should that be their wish.
“That is why I am grateful to have the opportunity to be here today and to engage in a dialogue with the ICMSA which will, I intend, continue in the months and years to come.
“On Climate Action, on regional and rural regeneration, on sustainable food production – you are part of the solution, not the problem.
“Rest assured, Sinn Féin is and has always been about championing the economic interest of Irish farmers, the welfare of Irish farmers and the future of rural Ireland.
“We want to work with you to deliver those solutions, together, in the interests of all the people of this great country”.