The Ploughing, despite a little inclement weather, again reiterates the interest and pride so many Irish folk have in their farming industry. Judging by an attendance that appears to far outstrip an average parliamentary debate, the footfall of the political class in Offaly suggests that they are still unwilling to play fast and loose with the rural vote. It should augur well for the future.
Another positive is the continued promotion of Ireland as a food island; it is good for tourism and it is good for the farmer. One reads about high-quality foods and those who produce them. And one reads the eulogies from those who cook with fresh Irish produce as ingredients. Again, this should auger well for the farming industry’s future.
Does this, however, correlate with one’s own experiences? Just how accessible are premium Irish foods to the average Irish consumer? Yes, there is a selection of premium products on the shelves, for those who can afford their high price tag. And for those products which use Irish farm-produced ingredients with provenance, the price can be even higher. In all honesty, when one assesses the retail price, most us are just grateful if it says Irish on the label, the premium product is an aspiration.
There are also times when Irish is simply not available. It is reputed that only one in twenty apples consumed in Ireland is home-grown. For dessert apples one suspects that it may be less. Apples can be grown in Ireland; indeed, parts of the country offer good growing conditions, but is that land now producing milk for milk powder and not apples for Irish consumers? Is it right that it is so, or should the Irish consumer-taxpayer expect more? If they pay the piper maybe they have a right to call the tune and to demand a greater diversity of Irish produce on their table? Maybe it is time that we should be channelling support to help those who produce a greater diversity of quality foods for local consumers?
For Ireland to be a true food island, it needs a diversity that has largely disappeared from its farming. It has also disappeared from its post-farm gate food system. There is a cost-based rational for further consolidation of the processors who produce mainstream products and ingredients, but is it time we saw a restoration of a parallel processing and marketing side; not least to give both the consumer and farmer options? As an Irish consumer-taxpayer, I would certainly prefer to see farm support funds going to create realistically-priced, Irish-grown and reared foods in the market. It should not just be about supporting farmer-producers of raw materials and ingredients for a select group of multi-nationals to process, brand, sell and profit from.
One clear loser from recent agri-food developments has been the Irish consumer. Not for them are the street markets found elsewhere in Europe; places where they can meet farmers and producers face-to-face. Not for them is a wonderful diversity of locally produced food products. Instead they must be satisfied with generic ‘Irish’ milk and beef and lamb and pork and poultry. Yes, there are different Irish brands around, but how much are they about the product itself and how much about the marketing person’s imagination? Yes, you may be able to read about a farmer on the label, but that is usually about telling the generic Irish story. It is unlikely to be the actual producer, not after his or her farm-product has transited through some large-scale processing factory on the way to the supermarket retailer’s shelf.
I once asked if the quality differentials of different milks could be exploited to create premium productsbut I was told that such did not matter, the differentiation was created by the marketing guys. I will not mention names, but in a sentence, the reason why Ireland will not take its rightful place among the World’s food nations was highlighted, premium food products are not created in an office, they are most often created on the farm and by the specialized processor.
How does this impact the farmer? The lack of diversity in products and processing has meant that the Irish farmer has been dragged in a direction for which his or her farming scale is not suited. They now have had no choice as their options have disappeared. The polarization of power that has resulted, post-farm gate, has then left the farmer as a trading entity weak and vulnerable; proud of the product that they produced but rarely justly rewarded for its production.
That Irish farmers’ representatives have not screamed halt as the major shift in supply-chain power has happened is a major failure. It is certainly never mentioned or acknowledged. They have singularly failed over the years to defend the farmer’s economic status within the supply-chain. It is a failure for which Irish farmers will pay for years to come.
To put it succinctly, while farm leaders have focused upon putting taxpayers’ coins in the farmers pockets, others within the supply-chain have found it rather more lucrative to just debag the farmer. This cannot continue.