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Embracing the challenge

Kilkenny man, Denis Drennan was elected unopposed as president of the Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers’ Association (ICMSA) last December. He comes to the role with significant experience of agri-politics and after several years of holding leadership roles within the organisation. Matt O’Keeffe caught up with the new president recently as he embarks on HIS tenure
President of the ICMSA, Denis Drennan.

Denis has a history of community involvement stretching back to his activities in Macra. He was a vice president of the organisation, as well as a member of its National Council and Executive, and he was heavily involved in the organisation locally in Kilkenny. “I subsequently took up the role of Leader chair in Kilkenny for 12 years. I have also been involved with the Nore Trust, a rivers and water catchments trust group in Kilkenny. As chair of the Agriculture and Rural Affairs committee in the ICMSA, a member of the Dairy Committee for several years and latterly as deputy president, I gained huge experience in the whole area of agricultural policy and that should stand to me in my presidential role,” he says.
“The pace of change in Irish and European agriculture is so fast that it is difficult to set out a complete agenda for the next three years, knowing that circumstances and policies are changing so rapidly,” he adds. Putting this comment into perspective, Denis explains: “There is a three-year cycle in a cow’s life from insemination to first calving, with all the planning, breeding, feeding and management that goes into that cycle. Compare that to a situation where planning for the future of your farm is subject to constantly changing policies and regulations. The role of that cow, while pre-determined at breeding, has, in the meantime, been changed by nitrates regulations, cow-banding, slurry-storage changes, lower fertiliser usage, as well as dietary changes. All that affects a farmer’s management plans and makes it difficult to cope, given that the farmer made fundamental breeding decisions three years ago in the reasonable expectation of a stable future life cycle and management practices for that cow that no longer exist.”


Commenting on the major, immediate challenges facing farmers, Denis says: “The whole environmental challenge is front and centre. Then, there’s the milk-price versus production-cost challenge, because the margin is simply not there. That must be first and foremost because we are being asked to change our practices practically every week. Nutrient-management plans, fertiliser registers, new herd-production limits and stocking rates based on cow-banding and lower nitrates ceilings, are only a few of the new impositions on producers. All these rule changes and regulatory processes are costing the farmer money, and the margins simply are not there to cover them.”

Achieving balance

Denis is adamant that there must be a balance between what is expected of farmers and what can be reasonably achieved, at the same time as safeguarding the economic production model that allows farmers to make a decent living: “We acknowledge that farmers are part of the solution to achieving climate change mitigation and improved environmental outcomes. A farmer must be economically viable to be environmentally sustainable. There are three legs on the stool to achieve economic, environmental and social stability. If the financial leg is not strong, it is very difficult to make the changes that are being demanded of farmers.
“The VAT refund issue* is another example of farmers having their financial leg pulled out from under them, after making plans based on expected outcomes that are suddenly changed. Farmers who made significant investment, secured long-term finance and reasonably expected a TAMS grant and a VAT rebate on their farm investment. Now the financial plans don’t add up because of a sudden VAT refund ineligibility on some inputs. It’s another example of having to plan without any certainty of expected outcomes being still there.”

Political commitment or soft words

Reflecting on the presence of several leading politicians at the ICMSA’s AGM, and what they had to say, Denis comments: “Despite the words of praise and support from Taoiseach, Leo Varadker and Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Eamon Ryan, it is a reality that farmers are regularly criticised on TV, radio, and other media, whenever issues around climate and the environment are being discussed.
“Talk of Just Transition-supports to help in making the changes expected of farmers is one aspect, and alternative sources of income are promoted, but these great words are rarely backed up by the required budgets to help farmers make the changes asked of them. That’s where the problem is. Talk is cheap, actions require finance.”
Denis gives an example of how supports have been eroded over time: “When the Rural Environment Protection Scheme (REPS) was first introduced almost 30 years ago, the average payment was £5,000. Now, the average payment for the Agri-Climate Rural Environment Scheme (ACRES) scheme is €5,000, and that’s without taking account of the inflationary effects of purchasing power in the meantime. If the Government is serious about turning the ship around and wants to protect food production in this country, then it needs to step up and accept the financial responsibility.”

The alternative challenges

The ICMSA president asked pertinent questions in relation to options being proffered: “Take organic farming, for instance. There has been a lot of interest from farmers. Yet, as a farmer representative on the Organics Strategy Group, when I asked where the markets are for organic produce, I was told that there are limited market opportunities. We had a Danish organic milk producer tell our Council last October that he is going broke because the consumer is not willing to pay the necessary premium for organically produced milk. Everyone talks about alternatives, but we must ask where the income is, apart from non-market supports, which, while welcome and necessary, are not a long-term viable solution.”

Breeding decisions

The Irish Cattle Breeders Federation star values changed recently, and Denis had this to say about the issue: “It’s unbelievably frustrating that a farmer purchases a five-star bull, observing all the scheme requirements and then the latest ratings make the bull a three-star sire. The farmer has acted in good faith and should expect that his actions will not be undermined by these changes in ratings. No other sector would tolerate this, and farmer frustration is fully understandable.”
He emphasises that calf management and sale options are critical in the years ahead: “The system is coming under increasing pressure, between age of movement off farm, exports and the value of progeny coming off dairy farms. Farmers do need to make decisions before the cow is even put in calf as to the calf’s purpose, how it will be managed before sale and whether the calf is a viable purchase for calf-to-beef producers. Specifically, in relation to farm-to-farm movements, where there is good cooperation and no issues at all with calf welfare, there is no reason to impose further restrictions. Our calves going to veal units in Europe are considered healthier than locally sourced calves. That is an endorsement of our high management and welfare standards both on farm and during transport. Further restrictions on movement will only serve to damage a viable calf outlet. The main aim must be to breed calves fit for purpose and manage them well, whatever their destination.”

*At time of print, this issue was ongoing involving negotiations between Revenue and farmer organisations.