Opinion

Exploring the ‘third option’ for dairy farmers

I was recently involved in a discussion with a small group of west of Ireland dairy farmers. While delighted with the current window of high milk prices, many were worried about the ongoing effect of rising costs absorbing milk price gains. They identified inaccessibility to land as the biggest physical obstacle to increasing their milking platform and milk output. Interestingly, they concurred that in any case, they had very little ‘stomach’ for further investment or expansion. Many are at a stage of life where they are looking to take things a bit easier.

Referring to a recent piece here, ‘Get Big or Get Out? Or is There a Third Option?’ two farmers in particular felt that a third way had to be found in order to maintain and expand viable milk production in the west of Ireland. All agreed that exiting dairy for the more sedentary life of a drystock farmer would be, for them at least, a demoralising non-runner.

Our many agriculture spin doctors frequently speak about our wonderful clean environment and the quality food we produce. But, one farmer wondered if we’re doing enough on the dairy side to cash-in on this. For example, do we encourage and stimulate local production and processing of farmhouse cheeses, or raw milk butter? The value added returns directly to the producer’s pocket. It keeps them in business and gives the next generation a viable rural future. It gives the family ‘a third way’. They now don’t feel pressurised to get big or get out. These, and numerous other ideas, could be encouraged in conjunction with small scale forestry and biodiversity initiatives on marginal land within farms.

One farmer with a small involvement in the tourism industry felt that dairy farm focussed food and biodiversity tourism could be aggressively developed and marketed internationally. Urban and foreign visitors could personally connect with their food from watching the grass grow through processing to consuming and repeatedly purchasing the final product online.

The group identified our long, grass growing season, enormous forestry potential on marginal land and our rich biodiversity as some of the strengths of our rural economy and wondered why are we not deriving the maximum economic benefit? Just because other countries are happy to take ‘the ranchers road’ – as I heard it described – does not compel us to follow. Surely we should display enough confidence in ourselves and our agriculture to explore, develop and opt for a third way in many circumstances?

Dairy farming at any scale was described as the lifeblood of rural Ireland. A large percentage of milk income is recirculated through the local rural economy. In the west, land quality and fragmentation combined with lack of industry or Government investment means there are very few alternatives. If a farm stops supplying milk, that income stream is lost to the local economy forever. The group observed that there are significantly less dairy farming families in the west of Ireland as compared to 20 years ago. Those who remain are managing significantly bigger herds and farms in order to do so. The group I met are realistic enough to know that this trend can’t continue and are proactively exploring a ‘third option’ for themselves and following generations.

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