The topic of farm subsidies or “handouts” as they are often referred to, have come under the scrutiny of the farming community and beyond, many times, writes Emma McCormack – a final-year WIT Agriculture student.
Great Agri-Food Debate
In a recent debate ran by Dawn Meats, one of the motions called for a discussion on whether such payments are a key player in the sustainability of Irish farming.
Often for the purpose of the debate, you are assigned a motion and a stance, and you’ve got to argue the points whether you believe them or not. That’s the beauty of debating. It teaches you how to argue anything and once you get good at it, you can literally argue that the sky is green.
However, after thinking about it recently quite a bit, I thought I’d give my honest opinions on the somewhat controversial topic.
Subsidies are a crutch
I think it’s fair to assume that the vast majority of Irish farmers are availing in some payment or other from the government or more directly, the Department of Agriculture.
There are few people that overlook supplementary forms of income and blow their own trumpet. There is of course nothing wrong with this.
There is no doubt in my mind that these payments are needed - they are indispensable. Were it not for farm subsidies, a lot of farms and farming families would be up the creek in rough, turbulent waters without a paddle.
However, the problem I have is that we must rely on these payments. Yes. you could argue that farmers are penalised very heavily when it comes to taxes for example, and theoretically in availing of Basic Payments or ANC funds, for example, we are merely taking back money that is already ours.
The word supplementary means “in addition to”, yet these payments are often not in addition to farmers income. They can be our sole income.
With the recent downfall of the beef industry, for example, it has become to turn money over for a lot of people. It’s not always possible to jump onto the dairy bandwagon either. Yet mouths must be fed - both human and bovine. The show must go on.
Fair price; the solution
In my eyes, it’s clear and simple. If we were getting a fair price for our produce, just as many other retailers do without any issues, we wouldn’t need hand-outs. Yes, they would be nice - extra disposable income never goes astray.
However, I’d prefer to put money in the bank myself, from long hours spent in my wellies, working tirelessly to produce food that’s good enough for consumers and their growing standards.
I’d much prefer if our government would take some responsibility for the lives they are affecting, abolish their “pity payments” and simply pay us for the work we do.
If we wanted to survive on handouts alone, the dole would be far easier compromise. What other sector do you know, that must humiliatingly lean on the crutch of subsidies to scrape by each year?
I understand that I am speaking generally. At one end of the scale, you have the top 10% of farmers. They don’t need any supplementary income, whether they avail of it or not.
They are punching ahead, in stock numbers and in bank balance figures and I have every respect for them. It takes courage and brains to take risks involved in the start-up of many intensive farm enterprises.
Whether these people are landowners, families, partners or graduates, it isn’t easy for anyone and it definitely takes money to make money.
At the other end of the scale, we have very small-scale farmers in disadvantaged areas. For example, up the mountains with little grazing area and minimal stock numbers. Were it not for their government payments, they may not be able to continue on with the farming business.
Two options for sustainability
However, this is where I may begin to offend people. There are two options, in my eyes for a sustainable Irish agricultural sector.
1. To only issue payments where really necessary; such as in the above scenarios where farmers are truly limited to what they can produce.
2. The other option and the one that I would encourage would be to abolish totally these payments.
People may not like to hear it but if your business relies on subsidies to break even or otherwise each year, it isn’t sustainable.
Therefore, is it really a business? What other business do you know that doesn’t generate money but stays in business solely because of grants, subsidies and government payments?
We are no longer being paid for the farming to do, but for the assets we have. Instead, we should be rewarded for the work we input and the standards our produce reaches. We are being subsidised for falling into categories and boxes, not for farming.
Growing population to be fed
I totally understand that everyone won’t agree, but sustainability has become everyone’s new favourite word with a projected global population of 10 billion before 2050. We need principles in place now that can not only sustain ourselves, but generations to come.
I’m tired of the farming sector being degraded and made to feel inferior time and time again. I may contradict myself in saying this but the time for talking is done.
Of course, we cannot sort anything out without talking about it first, but we have been crying out for help for a long time now. Our cries fall on deaf ears.
As a soon to be agricultural graduate, I aspire to be independent in my occupation. I am not spending a large portion of my valuable time studying in college, for my hard work and intelligence to be overlooked. I don’t want a crutch to lean on. I don’t want to be the pity of other sectors. I don’t want handouts. I want to work hard. I want to farm to the best of my capabilities and I want to be paid respectably for it.
Fighting for equality
Is it too much to ask for farmers to be paid fairly? As long as subsidies are part of farmers primary income, Irish agriculture will never be sustainable.
It’s time to put fairness back into our sector. Just as the nurses have had to fight for equality, we also need to do the same. Subsidies should be supplementary to our income if they are to continue to be issued.
I think they should be eradicated totally, however. They are not a fair system. We should be paid for our work, our performance, progression and farming. Not for our assets.
If the farm can’t sustain itself based on a fair price, it’s not a fully operating farm. I understand some farms are very small and farmers may need part-time jobs, but generally, if a business can never be profitable, is it really a business?
Thinking outside the box
Some people do think outside the box. For example, going into organic farming or installing bee boxes for extra income. Farming has stepped up its game in the past few years and we must strive to keep up. To adapt and to grow. Otherwise, our farms become history.
I think a fair price, would be a great first step on the long-awaited voyage to sustainable agriculture in Ireland.