Time to cultivate a respect for farmers



My efforts at growing things to eat have not been a success this year. In fact, were we to depend on my crops to survive my patch would be declared a famine area. It wasn’t that the fruit and veg didn’t make an effort to grow – they did – but was what happened to them before I got a fork near my farmed produce.

What began as a project in the time of Covid began promisingly and my enthusiasm for growing my own ripened last year. But this year has been a lesson in horticultural humility, despite all my manuring, weeding and watering. White caterpillars reduced the purple-sprouting broccoli to skeletons during the couple of days I wasn’t massacring the voracious pests (their revenge I suppose). The first early spuds were the size of marbles and the courgettes got lethal mildew

The wettest July on record caused the tomatoes to split and cut flies ate all the leaves on my gooseberry bushes so that their fruit failed and the bushes died (what kind of mad insect kills off its source of food?)  I could go on but you get the picture and, if nothing else, I my respect for farmers has grown massively.

Whatever the activity from dairying to tillage, farmers contend with multiple challenges aside from pests, disease and weather. Rising costs, falling prices, climate change, pressure to reduce carbon emissions, cut down on herd numbers, rewet land for nature restoration and ever-increasing regulation from Europe are all ramping up the pressure on the sector.

In some instances, farmers are being asked to do an about-turn on previous policy, having been told to drain land, they are now being told to rewet it or, having been encouraged to increase dairy production, they now being pressured to reduce cattle numbers.

Last week the dairy sector had had enough and they revolted in protest over nitrate regulations which means that the ratio of nitrates – basically manure-to land – must be reduced. This means that either famers need to cull their herds to reduce the amount of manure produced or else get more land on which to spread the muck. The EU had decided not to change its derogation for Ireland on nitrate rules plus, to add to farmer’s woes, farm payments were delayed.

Earlier this month it was the turn of pig farmers to voice their problems when a report showed that almost half the country’s pig farmers will be forced to quit if severe staff shortages can’t be sorted out promptly.

The blistering early September temperatures and extraordinary weather this year are a warning of future impact on crop and grass growth, never mind the effect of drought or floods, all of which involve changes to harvesting and planting dates, extra expense and the threat of new diseases.

Farmers have their own cost of living crisis; the cost of diesel and fertiliser has gone up 25% while at the same time efforts to combat the general CL crisis may impact on them, like the recent milk price war in supermarkets.

Leaving aside the vocational aspect and satisfaction in working the land, farming facts tells its own story. Of the country’s 135,000 or so farms only 20% rely solely on farming, according to the Teagasc farm survey, Some 56% must rely on off-farm employment to make ends meet while 27% are classified as vulnerable, while the average age of farmers is 58, and the average income was just €45,809 last year.  Only those in the dairy sector and tillage make above average incomes.

Food production here is geared to export feeding into a hefty €7.2bn. worth of food and drink exports and we don’t rely nearly as much on home-grown produce, compared with our neighbours the UK and Sprain produce more than 60% of their own food needs compared with our 14.5%.

As well as respect I must say I feel a good deal of sympathy for farmers. They seem to come under more pressure than the rest of us to take action to reduce greenhouse gasses although the call to farmers cut carbon emissions by 25% is non-mandatory and is incentivised.

Maybe it’s human nature to ‘other blame’ and point the finger at other sectors  over greenhouse gasses but I suspect that farmers are more prepared to make changes than the rest of us are.

We could follow their example and respect them too.

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