Big Interview: ‘It’s good to have a contest; let the best man win’ – Seamus Sherlock

Ensuring the sustainability of the family farm model and finding solutions to price volatility are red line issues for Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmers’ Association (ICSA) presidential candidate, Seamus Sherlock.

Speaking ahead of the publication of the final results of a major Agricultural Crime Survey, carried out by the ICSA and researchers at Waterford Institute of Technology (WIT), Sherlock said addressing “the constant state of fear” that lingers in some isolated rural communities is also central to his manifesto.

Despite the latest official Garda crime statistics reporting a downward trend in instances of rural crime, concerns are not depleting on the ground, according to Sherlock.

He suggests that community CCTV systems should be established nationwide. He also stresses that farmers need to “get serious” about security.

The race for ICSA’s top office is between Sherlock, the current ICSA rural development chairman, and the incumbent ICSA president Patrick Kent. The contest is understood to be “neck-and-neck”.

However, the west Limerick drystock farmer is hopeful that his “deep connection” with grassroots members gives him a winning edge.

Farm crime survey

Earlier this year, the first results from an ICSA/WIT survey – based on nationwide responses from 861 farmers – found that two-thirds of farmers have been the victims of crime. The average value of assets recorded as stolen in an incident of theft was €1,818.

Last July, the second tranche of results found that, on average, farmers are willing to take a ‘financial hit’ of €1,711, rather than report an incident of theft.

AgriLand understands the final results will highlight that the main reasons farmers don’t report crime include: Garda station closures – temporarily or permanently – and because victims were unsatisfied with previous action taken by the Gardai after farm-related crimes.

The report is also expected to reveal that farmers themselves, or others on their behalf, have recovered more stolen goods than the Gardai.

“The dark nights are now here, it’s now getting dark at 5:00pm. Fellas have a long night to be on their own in rural Ireland; fearing to God that someone is going to rob them or beat them up,” said Sherlock.

I don’t want to over-dramatise it; but most country people will tell you they are living in fear of someone driving in; or in fear of being on their own in the middle of the night.

“A lot of older men tell me, if the dog is barking at night they jump out of the bed.

“Year-on-year, these people are getting more afraid; more down and out; and that is something I am trying to change,” he said.

The father-of-six, who is working closely with the Gardai on prevention initiatives, is urging farmers to “get security conscious”.

“Farmers are busy men and women; but leaving the quad, the lawnmower, the chainsaw or the welder sitting there in plain sight is unfortunately inviting people in. There are people driving around looking to find this stuff.

“Every farmer should have a gate and a secure lock-up system. Let it be a shipping container or something they can put their valuables in and put a proper lock onto at night. These containers are not expensive,” he said.

Claire Mc Cormack, AgriLand; Seamus Sherlock, ICSA; and Niall Garvey, Muntir

Sherlock – who will speak at an event on the impact of rural crime in Scarriff, Co. Clare, next week – said reaching out to vulnerable, elderly neighbours in isolated areas is crucial to alleviating fears.

“People would sleep better at night if they thought there was somebody who would be there very quickly if they needed them. Rural people always put their shoulder to the wheel when it’s needed; and it’s now time to stand with our elderly and vulnerable who are living with worry and depression,” he added.

Driving ICSA forward

Five years after he originally got involved with ICSA, Sherlock says he’s ready to drive the organisation – which has over 10,000 members – into the next phase.

“I’ve met farmers in every county and village in Ireland, and I’ve seen how hard people are struggling to stay on the land. I’m passionate to keep the family farm alive and to keep the lights on in rural Ireland.

“I decided to put my hat in the ring to see if we can do anything for these farmers, because the face of agriculture is changing dramatically; I think we have to change with it,” he said.

He says he will battle for fair returns to primary producers.

We are producing the finest quality beef and lamb in the country. Yet, 90% of the time, we seem to be selling it at a small profit. If we’re unlucky, we have a loss – that is not sustainable.

“We’re an ageing population as well and there is a reason for that. Young people just won’t work the hours we are working for little reward. They want a job where they get paid for the hours they work,” he said.

He suggests that paying farmers more to take part in the government’s Knowledge Transfer Programme, would be an encouraging step to incentivise more people into the sector.

“There is no real financial gain for the chap that joins. Okay, he is going to get knowledge; but he is putting a lot of effort in; and he is spending his money up front by paying advisors and paying vets.

“In any other sector, if employees needed to go for training they are paid to go and they are paid for their expenses. Most drystock farmers are working every hour of the day; taking days off to go to events means paying someone to stay on the farm.

“We need to make these schemes more attractive; we need to have it that there is actually an incentive for the farmer to go,” the current ICSA rural development chairman said.

Although Sherlock’s youngest daughter, Mary-Kate, is showing a keen interest in taking over the family farm someday – and growing numbers of women are joining the ICSA – he is concerned that the country’s traditional passion for farming is dying out.

“The biggest concern at most meetings is there is very few farmers under 60 years of age. Give it 10 years, and they are not going to be able to stay farming,” he said.

‘Let the best man win’

Sherlock’s desire to enter the race for the presidency has been bolstered by support he has received at grassroots level over the last six months.

“I farm drystock, a few suckler cows, and I farm rushes. They asked me to run because they actually believe I understand where they are coming from; I’m one of their own.

“Rural Ireland is the backbone of Ireland as far as I’m concerned. Dublin wouldn’t survive if the kids weren’t coming up from rural communities to work in it and bringing their skills with them,” he said.

After weeks of hustings across the country, Sherlock is confident that ICSA’s representation among the farming community will continue to grow if he is selected to take the wheel.

Four or five years ago people would have said to me: ‘Who is the ICSA? I never heard of them before’. Now everyone knows who we are and what we are doing. We are punching way above our weight.

“We are just ordinary people ourselves; none of us get a wage; we are all voluntary, so it is a huge commitment.

“It’s good for the organisation to have a contest as far as I’m concerned; let the best man win. If I win I’ll lead and if I don’t I’ll work with Patrick for the next two years, as much as possible.

I’m very humbled at the amount of people ringing me in support of what I am trying to do. It’s putting a big weight on my shoulders that there is such belief out there; but, I am up for that challenge.

The ICSA presidential election will take place on Thursday, December 14. The winner will be picked from more than 100 votes from ICSA executives in every county.