ICMSA President reflects on ‘bigger picture’ for dairy farmers

Farmers must no longer be regarded simply as price takers, according to newly re-elected ICMSA President John Comer.

Reflecting on the prospects for dairy farmers in Ireland over the next 12 months he said that the ‘bigger picture’ effects farmers incomes to at least the same degree as product prices and that farmer advocates must concentrate more on ensuring that the context within which farmers produce food is balanced.

“The Milk Market Observatory within the Commission’s DG Agriculture to monitor the market situation for dairy products is in place over twelve months. On its launch I warned that this must not become another ineffective cop-out but that it exactly what it has become: a statistical collecting exercise, and that’s what it will stay unless given real teeth,” Comer commented.

“We have all seen the damage the multiple retailers in Ireland have done to the liquid milk market and this problem is being replicated across Europe in dairy and other sectors. Politicians across the EU have spoken on this topic for years and all it has amounted to is a hill of utter waffle. The large multiples continue to build more stores, gain market share by whatever means and the other links in the chain continue to pay for this excessive power.

“It is killing farmers and also, I believe, impacting negatively at processor level and, most certainly, the consumer is not gaining. The already too powerful are getting more power and it is at the expense of all others, including farmers, consumers or smaller retailers.

“It’s time somebody stood up to the retail giants and that has to be the EU Commission.”

While on the subject of toothless agencies, Comer returned to his criticism of the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission, whose intervention last November in the beef dispute he described as “brass necked”.

The ICMSA President said that the reason given for the intervention was to ensure compliance with competition law but he observed that this  sounded very hollow to farmers who have wondered for years where competition law was when it came to solicitors fees, or veterinary medicine costs, or fallen animal costs.

“I was widely reported as describing the intervention by the Competition and Consumer Protection Agency as “brass-necked” at the time and I stand by every syllable of that. If there’s one group in Ireland that doesn’t need the protection of a state agency, it’s the meat factories – the people selling to them might need some protection but we never seem to be considered”, he said

Another major component of the ‘bigger picture’, according to Comer, are farmers input costs.

“In the five years between 2008 and 2012, farm inputs costs have increased by 41% while farm overhead costs have increased by 18%. In the year to September 2014, our output prices have fallen by 11.6% while our input prices have only fallen by 3.5% with the principal reduction being in feed costs,” he commented.

“This price-cost squeeze is simply not sustainable and must be addressed by policymakers. The legal system is also a barrier to competition and I spoke to one farmer recently who was transferring banks and was forced to pay four different solicitors to transfer a lien as he was farming in a company.

“ICMSA is concerned not just with the availability of credit to fund required farm development, but the real cost of credit relative to what is available in other countries.  There is need for long-term capital at competitive rates.”

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