Less may be more
Our attitude to change is contradictory, at best. Take the response from our farmer representative organisations to any suggestion that milk or meat producers could be paid to reduce or cease production. Would it not be better to accept that, some farmers, for their own reasons, may wish to consider options that include exiting dairy or suckler farming. A financially rewarding scheme that facilitates, even encourages, some farmers to retire or move to other enterprises should have marginal effect on those remaining in the dairy or cattle sectors.
Yes, there may be an argument that there is a potential opportunity cost for those remaining in the sectors because some of these farms, sterilised for bovine breeding would, otherwise, have been available for lease or purchase. That does not confer the right to block the ability of fellow farmers to make the best choices for themselves and their families. It is not a case of either supporting existing producers to remain in production or assisting those who are inclined to consider a viable exit package. Both strategies have merit. We accept that there are legal obligations to reduce emissions. Farmers did not negotiate those obligations, but they are now being regulated to manage their farms in a manner that will meet them. Nitrates reductions and cow banding are the ‘soft’ options instead of a cruder approach of mandatory herd reductions and the re-imposition of quotas. The ongoing contraction of the suckler sector will not be reversed. Those leaving do so for a variety of reasons including age, scale and, most of all, lack of profitability.
If policymakers believe those farmers should be financially rewarded for their decisions, then the question must be asked as to whether the rest of the farming community has the right to prevent them from receiving that recompense? The same logic applies to milk producers who might be tempted by an exit-support scheme. Processing co-ops are still accepting new entrants. There is no ceiling on production, apart from the ongoing barrage of regulatory restrictions. Yes, there may be less land available for those entering or remaining in farming, but that fact is not solely attributable to cattle or milk exit schemes.
The demand for land for alternative uses, including biodigester feedstock needs, solar panels, rewetting and biodiversity margins, among others, is set to increase anyway in the years ahead, leaving less land available for traditional milk and meat production. To attempt to block farmers from taking financially rational decisions because they may impinge on land availability is neither fair nor logical. Change is coming fast. More land, more milk, or more cattle are personal decisions for individual farmers. Those decisions should not and must not impinge on the rights of other farmers to leave the sectors and, potentially, be rewarded for doing so. In any event, what food production economist ever suggested that, in a well-supplied market, more output, on a national or global level, delivers higher returns to individual producers? Less may be more.
We can take great pride in the enormous contribution Irish agriculture makes and has made through good and bad times to the Irish economy both in terms of sustaining rural communities and in supporting jobs and exports. That pride, however, cannot be a vanity at the expense of the financial wellbeing of individual farm families. When supply outpaces demand, the primary producer pays the price. The recent calamitous milk-price reductions will take upwards of €55,000 out of the net income of the average milk producer this year. That’s economic reality. Everything else is vanity.