The outgoing president of the Irish Co-operative Organisation Society (ICOS) has urged the young farmers to come forward and lead the evolution of the co-op sector.
Speaking at the 127th ICOS Annual General Meeting (AGM) yesterday (Thursday, June 2), outgoing president Jerry Long noted that “the achievements of the Irish co-operative movement for over a century and more have been driven by generations of farmers”.
“We now need to see a next generation of farmers coming forward to lead the continuous evolution, sustainability and success of our sector in the critically important decades ahead,” he told the delegates in Portlaoise.
Long made the comments as his three-year term as president of the organisation draws to a close. He has served on the ICOS Dairy Committee for 11 years.
“The current generation of co-operative leaders serve us well, and will continue to do so,” the Tipperary dairy farmer added.
The ICOS president said that a “growing level of participation” in the democratic life of co-operatives must be fostered from grassroots through to regional committees and onwards to board level.
“That won’t happen unless younger men and women get involved in the life of their co-operatives,” he said.
Long acknowledged that “there’s no guarantee of a board seat” but said there is fulfillment in helping shape the future direction of a co-operative enterprise.
“Leadership is hugely important in the co-operative movement. We have created hugely successful businesses, trading on global markets, matching and beating the best organisations in the world.
“Those businesses are owned and controlled by farmers, for farmers, with everything about them designed to support and promote their members,” he continued.
The ICOS president noted that this did not happen by accident but came as a result of “strong leadership which included implementing some popular and not-so-popular decisions.
“That strong leadership will be called on to an even greater extent over the coming years. While we’re in a strategically strong position at the moment, we face some substantial headwinds that aren’t of our making,” he said.
Although there are record milk and mart prices, the AGM heard that volatility and uncertainty exists for many farmers, set against the backdrop of climate change, spiralling costs and labour shortages.
“The result of two years of Covid supply chain disruption, along with the criminal war in Ukraine, is that our whole business infrastructure, and that of almost the entire world, has been thrown into disarray.
“It’s clear that ‘just-in-time’ manufacturing and supply chains just don’t work anymore,” Long commented.
“The customers for our wonderfully nutritious foods, particularly in developing countries, will have difficulty in affording the prices that they are being charged.
“This is, to a large extent, is a result of the cheap food policy of most western nations over the past number of decades.
“That misguided policy has served to undermine the stable, sustainable, safe and affordable food we can produce; and in seeking to continually drive down prices, it weakened our industry, and drove away a generation of young people to make a better life elsewhere.
“The current concerns for food security can be attributed to the continued undermining of our sector, and its portrayal as a destroyer of the environment,” he added.
Long explained that this portrayal has created a stereotype of Irish agriculture which must be challenged.
“We currently face a target to dramatically reduce our usage of chemical nitrogen (N), and in the coming weeks we expect a sectoral target for greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reductions which will challenge us beyond our current capacity.
“Decisive leadership will be needed by co-operative boards, working with their management teams and others in the sector, to find a way to get through this evolution without destroying our industry.
“Young people are our most valuable resource. We need their talent, energy and idealism, and so I challenge our younger generation of farmers to come forward and get involved in your co-operative,” Long said.