Climate change and farming

Climate change is the most important challenge faced by Irish agriculture today. From next year onwards the basic payment scheme grant will be changed, so that 35 per cent of the payment will be based on full adherence to environmental measures on the farm. In other words, farmers will have to be involved in an environmental scheme, such as the green, low-carbon agri-environment scheme (GLAS), to get full payment.

This new scheme, at the moment known as the rural environmental protection scheme (REPS), which is not to be implemented until 2022, essentially ensures that farmers work with the implementation of full climate measures in mind.

Farmers have always farmed in an environmental way. In the early 1990s the original REPS was introduced. This scheme was a single payment of about £5,000 (Irish pounds) every year for these measures to be implemented:

  1. protection of natural areas such as owned forests, quarries, and sanctuaries, areas not used for agricultural production;
  2. planting hedgerows around the farm;
  3. reduction of nitrogen;
  4. putting boundary fences 3 metres from drains, rivers, and watercourses.

And so on. You had land bind boxes, set up sand for bees, and a whole range of environmental measures that ensured that farmers and the rural areas were at the cutting edge of the environmental issue.

Over the years other schemes came and went, such as the agri-environmental options scheme (AEOS) and GLAS. They were mostly unpopular, because of their poor payments. For example, a standard REPS payment was about £5,000, while the AEOS and GLAS payments were at best €4,000, which defies inflation, which usually rises over thirty years—not the other way round!

The Green Party has scapegoated rural areas for its current policy on the climate crisis, but we farmers have little or no time for the Greens. The reason is that they will not sit down and discuss and exchange ideas with the farmers. They are working constantly with theories that they consider viable and view the work done by environmentally responsible farmers who have been a part of every environmental scheme since the 1990s as irrelevant to the whole climate debate.

But there cannot be realistic advancement in anything unless both sides get together and put their views across. Only then can an all-round strategy be implemented, combining theory and practical application on the ground for a positive solution that suits all. So, instead of recrimination and accusations we have debate and discussion to bring two important cogs together.

For years we farmed in a socialist way around my area, and I will discuss this now. I will also discuss “show farmers” or capitalist farmers and armchair farmers. For thirty years the farmers in my area got together as a group and bought all types of machinery: harvesters, silage-makers, harrows, shakers, trailers of all types, and so on. Once these were bought these items were used for the general needs of the area, and no money was exchanged, only labour.

For instance, you got your silage cut, but instead of payment you helped with the silage-cutting in the area. The same with the harvest and all the jobs of the area, as the machines were available to all within the area. This enabled farmers to concentrate on production, and their only cost was fertiliser, meal, and the bringing in of the animals.

Back then, Ireland was on a par with the Mercosur countries, with high production rates. Its grants back then were 10 and 22-month grants; cattle of that age were submitted and paid for. This gave an incentive to produce more.

In the 1990s the grants changed from amount of cattle to number of hectares. This, with the “Celtic tiger,” changed farming for the worse. So instead of being treated as a business farming was treated as a way of life. Instead of concentrating on production they bought tractors and all types of machinery that they did not need. They also bought very dear cattle that had little chance of making a profit—all this to give the impression of wealth, to keep up with the Joneses; but this meant increased indebtedness, with hire-purchase payments and extra borrowings to buy cattle and agri-products.

Essentially, all their profits were sucked into an ever-spiralling debt that became catastrophic and wiped out many farms, leaving them prey to predatory banks and vulture funds.

This was a capitalist system at its worst. It was the reason why production fell so badly and left us at a disadvantage with Mercosur countries. Comparing socialist farming with capitalist farming, it is easy to see what’s best for everyone involved.

As for the armchair farmers, they are just people who inherit a farm or who have no interest in farming and lease it out. Such a farm doesn’t produce as much as it should, but at least it is producing, though costly to the person leasing it, and that affects his production. With the new EU basic payment it’s armchair farmers who will be targeted, with reduced grant payments, eventually getting nothing at all.

As stated earlier, the coming farm payment will be largely based on involvement in environmental schemes. Non-involvement means a drastic cut in income. It’s a time of great change, and if rural areas are not ready they will be caught out.

A conference on the climate change debate, the current Climate Bill, the closing down of peat plants, wind farms and other pertinent rural issues would be a welcome event. If it could be organised, debate and discussion is the only way forward.

The forthcoming CAP talks should recognise the need to take care of small farmers with an increase in their annual basic payment scheme. Large-scale co-operative factory farmers’ grants should be cut to accommodate this plan. Large-scale farmers are getting €100,000 to €300,000 a year while farmers under a certain acreage are getting about €5,000 to €6,000. The CAP talks are a chance for left groups in the EU to get a fair deal for small and medium farmers who have implemented environmental measures all their lives.

Mick Wallace and Clare Daly, alongside their allies, did a great job with the new Aarhus agreement recently. This is a very important agreement for the rights of the public and the protection of the environment. Lots of luck to their efforts during the CAP talks. Mainstream agricultural lobbying groups such as the IFA could learn from this and actually fight for all farmers’ interests, not for the big farmers and corporations.

I hope the reader will find this article and earlier articles informative. It is important to get the rural point of view across. The coming CAP talks are, in my view, the most important in Irish agricultural history. A lot of livelihoods in the rural area are on the line. It is not an exaggeration to say we are at a crossroads.