Covid-19 – and its subsequent lockdowns – have been a “disaster for farming organisations”. However, they have allowed the Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmers’ Association (ICSA) to adapt and try new approaches.

Speaking to Agriland on the topic, ICSA general secretary Eddie Punch explained the situation from an organisational perspective.

“Lockdown has been a disaster for farm organisations. We have adapted, we’ve done Zoom meetings with farmers, but they’re not the same as real engagement with people,” he said.

However, as lockdowns eased, the ICSA seized its chance to get going again and represent farmers, Punch explained.

“For example, for our CAP [Common Agricultural Policy] submission we travelled the length and breadth of Ireland. We did meetings everywhere from Donegal to Wexford to west Cork to Monaghan, in farmyards – open air.”

This approach saw meetings out in the open on fine days, with meet-ups taking to well-ventilated sheds during wetter weather.

“They were much more useful to us in feedback I would say than the Zoom meetings – but the Zoom meetings have been a help as well, in terms of you can get a very quick meeting with a committee,” the general secretary added.

However, another challenge facing the organisation during lockdown was recruitment – which was “devastated by the fact that we’re not allowed to call around to farms”, he said.

“Being blunt about it, farm organisations cannot survive under lockdown and, from an ICSA perspective, we cannot survive unless we get more members.

“That’s why we’re looking for more members and we’re going to have to find ways of getting them now. But it’s been a tough 18 – months certainly in our business.”

On a related note, Punch outlined his view that, because there has been less face-to-face engagement in Brussels and in Dublin, this “perhaps explains the fact that we are now dealing with a [tough] hand of cards in terms of the final EU decisions and in terms of even the department’s initial proposals”.

“I think all of that reflects the fact that the bureaucrats in Brussels and Dublin have become that bit detached from the representatives of people on the ground – I think we’ve got to claw back that as quickly as possible,” he stressed.

Turning to the ICSA’s plans for kickstarting more organisation activity, the general secretary said:

“There were a couple of very good meetings we had in the middle of the day, even morning time, in farmyards around Ireland.

“For a long time now we’ve been a bit concerned that meetings at night in hotels when people are tired after a long day on the farm, they may be not just all that useful to us.

“So maybe there is a lesson that we may be doing a lot more of the engagement with people on farmyards. Maybe open days and open evenings, field evenings and farm walk kind of settings,” he said.

“I think we found that even from the point of view of consulting on CAP, there was a much more active engagement there.”

With the organisation now taking the chance to “mix things up a little bit”, the ICSA voted to hold its latest national executive meeting in Gurteen College, with talks earmarked for the day also.

A hybrid approach of physical meet-ups with video call links for those unable to attend in person is also being taken.

Explaining that the organisation is “still on a learning curve” in managing this approach, Punch voiced the view that it’s difficult to keep people logging in through Zoom engaged at times.

“I think we’re on a learning curve there; there are [arguments] for and against it, but it’s almost like how marts now are going to operate in the future – it’s a mix of guys around the ring and the guys online – the hybrid,” Punch concluded.