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End of term

Tim Cullinan concluded his four-year presidency of the Irish Farmers' Association (IFA) and handed the reins to Francis (Francie) Gorman who was elected in December. Here, Tim reflects on his term, the challenges faced, and progress made

“It’s incredible to look back at the huge upheaval caused by the Covid-19 pandemic," Tim says as he recalls some of the big issues from his time. "That was a society-wide challenge and farmers played their part in ensuring that fresh food was continually available during that global emergency. Little did we think that, in almost the immediate aftermath, the world would be facing into a war in Eastern Europe, with Russia invading Ukraine. That war has had a big impact on agriculture, not only in Ireland and Europe, but across the globe. The massive cost increases farmers have had to endure over the past two years have only recently abated somewhat.

"Right now, the Middle East is also causing a lot of challenges and trade disruptions and there is little certainty around how or when these conflicts will be resolved. The end result is that there is a lot of instability around the world and that makes the work farmers are doing here in Ireland, producing safe and secure food supplies, all the more important.”

The IFA lobbying machine

Despite the pressurised and often firefighting nature of the role of IFA president, Tim says he enjoyed the experience: “It is always a privilege to represent farmers, whether that involves lobbying local and national politicians or working in Brussels to promote the needs of Irish agriculture in the capital of the EU. I have spent a lot of time in Brussels and across the other EU countries working with COPA/COGECA, of which I have been a vice-president. That role provided the opportunity to lobby and influence policymakers in the European Parliament, in the Commission or among the Councils of Ministers of the EU. IFA’s strong presence in Brussels over many years has provided us with unrivalled access to policymakers on behalf of farmers.”

A focus on change

The amount of change, he says, over the past four years has been extraordinary: “That runs from straightforward food production and agricultural issues to climate change and emission targets. One of the first issues I was involved in as IFA president was the setting of the climate emission and sectoral targets. We ran a massive campaign to secure a more reasonable and achievable ceiling. The Government was seeking a 30 per cent reduction from the farming sector by 2030. We ended up agreeing a 25 per cent reduction in emissions and farmers have been very proactive in working towards those reductions. We can see the change already with farmers demonstrating, in practical terms, that they can and are reducing emissions on their farms. That shows that Irish farmers are taking their responsibilities seriously around climate change mitigation measures.

"What is a bit disturbing is that I don’t think we are getting proper acknowledgement for our efforts or for the costs to farmers of implementing the measures associated with those mitigation strategies on our farms. The funding to support farmers on this journey has been totally inadequate.

“The Nitrates Derogation reduction was preceded by a serious campaign by IFA to maintain higher limits of production. I had several meetings with Commissioner Sinkevičius as well as the Taoiseach and other ministers around this issue. The outcome is very disappointing and, again, the Government must look at how it will support farmers who face livestock reductions and financial losses. Farmers cannot be expected to take all the financial hit for efforts that benefit everyone in society.”

Farmers face unfair competition

Tim is particularly animated around unfair competition: “We are an open economy where our farmers export 90 per cent  of what we produce. We need a licence to produce that food, with very high safety and quality standards. That comes at a significant cost. Meanwhile, we must compete with the likes of Brazil, Argentina, China and the US, where, quite often, the standards and regulations are well below those imposed on Irish and European farmers. Irish livestock producers have only one competitive advantage and that is our grass-based production system. I have been continuously making the point, especially in recent times, that our grass-based system must be protected. It is a high animal welfare system compared to confined livestock production across the world. The reality is that, overall, our production system is as close as is possible to organic farming without the label on it. That high quality must not be disadvantaged by blanket regulations, including the Nitrates Directive. Our production model is unique and should be treated accordingly. It is critically important to the marketing of our produce that we protect and maintain that grass-based model.”

Acknowledging the potential of the recently secured PGI status for Irish grass-fed beef, he says: “With 90 per cent of our beef production exported, any differentiation or advantage that we can leverage in the marketplace is welcome and critically important. The PGI status is worthwhile and drives Irish beef in the right direction in markets where we are trying to add a premium to the base price. What needs to happen, as well, is to get the powers that be to establish a special brand around Irish suckler beef. The other positive thing that has happened has been the securing of €20m from the Brexit Adjustment Reserve for the genotyping of the entire national herd. That can bring a range of efficiencies to our livestock production. In addition, we will have the DNA of every animal in the country, which will provide total traceability to the farm of origin. That is why we should be able to have a premium attached to Irish suckler beef in the future.”

A vote of confidence

The IFA introduced a new hybrid voting system under Tim's presidency. He sees it as a positive development: “I was closely involved in the development of the new voting model that provides more opportunity for members to make their leadership choices. The option to use a postal vote in addition to the historic branch voting system has been favourably received and voting numbers are up substantially, as a consequence. It is important that members have a choice, and our elected representatives will have a stronger mandate because of the changes to the IFA’s voting system.”

Tim recognises the challenge of bringing all farm sectors together and representing their sometimes diverse interests: “NFA/IFA has been in existence since 1955. The organisation has served farmers very well over those decades. The IFA has over 70,000 members and there will always be challenges in representing every sector, as we do. Ultimately, despite competition between different sectors, when it comes to working for the benefit of farmers, we all come together in a common cause. We must have a strong, united organisation, especially when there are so many challenges facing us all.”