IFA South Leinster election: Kehoe keen for opportunity

Next month, Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA) members in the association’s South Leinster Region will elect a new chairperson for the area.

Postal voting by county officers and branch delegates in the eight county executives of South Leinster will take place in early December, with the count scheduled for mid-December.

There are two candidates in the running: Francie Gorman from Co. Laois, and James Kehoe, Wexford county chairperson.

AgriLand caught up with both candidates in advance of the election to hear why they’re going for the position and what they think they can bring to the table. In this article, we preview James Kehoe from the Monageer IFA branch in Co. Wexford.

‘I’d relish the opportunity’

Kehoe told AgriLand that he’d “relish the opportunity” to take on the role.

“From the experience I’ve garnered through the IFA in different committees and the role as county chair of Wexford, I can bring a wealth of knowledge and experience I’ve gained over the years, even though I’m pretty young.

“I’m 41-years-old, but I have the experience of being in the middle of a very active farming county. I’m very close to all the grassroots here in Wexford so I feel I know the farmers’ concerns, and I have those same concerns myself,” Kehoe said.

“There’s no better person to bring those concerns forward to the top level of the IFA than a youngish farmer trying to make a go of it,” he argued.

As well as working with grassroots members in the organisation, Kehoe says he is “very accustomed to lobbying TDs and MEPs” on a range of issues.

Image source: James Kehoe IFAPriorities

Kehoe outlined a number of areas which he would prioritise if he was successful in his election bid.

His top priority, he says, is keeping the family farm viable, and as part of that, focusing on the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and Irish schemes.

I’d like to protect the productive farmers in Leinster. Low farm-gate prices and high input costs are all squeezing the margins of farmers. I want to ensure that farmers are kept front and centre at the board level.

The suckler-to-beef, sheep and tillage farmer also argued that there was a “challenge with convergence” asking: “Will it make viable farmers unviable?”

As well as that, Kehoe said he would focus on areas including the environment; the nitrates derogation; farm safety; farm inspections; and TB.

“TB is big problem, especially in Wicklow and north Wexford, and all over the region it’s becoming more prevalent,” he noted.

There’s issues there and I’d like to work with the department [on TB]. We have a national animal health committee, but I’d like to get involved in the TB issue as well, to try and minimise the stress that TB outbreaks cause on farmers.

Farm succession is another key issue for Kehoe, saying he would like to “try to bring policy around that to make it that young farmers will take over farms and move forward in the business”.

“The average age of farmers is 58, and only 7% or 8% of farmers are under 40. There’s nearly more farmers over 80 than there are under 40. This isn’t right for a sustainable future,” the Wexford county chair argued.

Other issues that Kehoe highlighted include the Fair Deal Scheme, which he says is causing “a lot of stress”, and farmer mental health.

Mental health, especially with the pandemic, has become more and more apparent. Farming can be such a lonely life.

“I think I’d like to do everything I can to try and make sure the mental health of people in rural South Leinster is dealt with the best it can be,” he said.

Other areas of concern for the 41-year-old farmer include the “nightmare” of rural broadband; and the issue of banks and vulture funds, which he has had some experience in dealing with.

Environment

The environment; climate change; and how agriculture is affected, is one of the most important issues for farm organisations in 2020.

“The one big thing is the environment, and we need to push the message out there that farmers are solutions to environmental issues, not the cause. The blame the farmers are getting is unjust and unfair,” Kehoe argued.

He added: “Farmers are custodians of the environment. We need to get the message out across rural and urban Ireland that farmers are here to protect the environment, not to damage it, and to produce top quality food.

I feel we get an awful lot of bad press, and sometime misleading press, in relation to the environment.

“I would like to develop the role of renewable schemes, and put a focus and a push on that. One of the big things that went around recently was that ‘new REPS’ scheme… I’d like to make sure that it is a farmer-friendly scheme, and that it’s not just spin,” the Monageer man said.

Background

Kehoe has been farming since he was 15 when his father passed away, and at 19, took over the family farm in his own right.

He joined the IFA in 1996 (the year the Wexford hurlers won the All-Ireland, he keenly points out), and became chair of his local branch in 2005.

He became a member of the IFA’s National Sheep Committee in 2012, and was on the committee as the Sheep Welfare Scheme was being negotiated between farm organisations and the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine.

He became Wexford county vice-chair in 2015, and chair in 2017, and he notes that his step-up into a county leadership position coincided with the birth of his daughter.

As well as the run-of-the-mill work as an IFA county chair, Kehoe is also involved in charitable endeavours, including a ‘live crib’ every Christmas, which has raised some €10,000 over the years. Unfortunately that won’t go ahead this year due to Covid-19.

Kehoe argues that, despite being relatively young, he has the experience to take on the regional chair role, noting that others in the IFA often mistake him for being older than he actually is.

“I really love working for the farmers on the ground, and if anyone in the county has a issue I’m the go-to-guy. I’ve built up contacts in different areas. I’d like to think that if you’re talking to anyone in Co. Wexford, they would say I’ve served them very well over the last four years,” he said.