‘Irish dairy labour shortage at crisis point’ – McCormack

At the age of just 40, Pat McCormack is the youngest ever president to take the helm at the Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers Association (ICMSA).

Last month McCormack, who runs a spring calving dairy herd supplying Tipperary Co-op, also became the first president to be elected unopposed since the foundation of the farm body in 1950.

Farming in his own right for the last 20 years – in Greenane, just outside Tipperary town – McCormack says his original vision was always to take on the family holding.

However, growing up next door to the late Sean Kelly, former president of the ICMSA, made a lasting impression on the ambitious new leader.

“When we were cycling to school, myself and my next door neighbour used to look into Sean’s place to see if the car was there, or was he gone to Europe.

“I’d always have been in touch with him from a young age; so, I was aware of what was happening in farming circles and farming politics,” he said.

An insider’s insight

After attending a local meeting in Clonaslee in 1999, McCormack was elected to the county executive – he was just 21.

“I spent three years driving in and out of Thurles, with Sean Kelly, to county executive meetings. Jackie Cahill was the deputy president at that time; there were some great debates.

“I learned a lot coming and going in the car – the reasoning behind what was going on, the explanations, you might interpret an issue completely differently on the road home, that was often the case.

Sean showed me that there can be far more meaning to a statement; he gave me a different insight; he gave me an insider’s insight into farm politics.

McCormack’s big step into the political ring of the association came in 2003; after the sad passing of his dear neighbour and friend.

He replaced the late Sean Kelly on the association’s national council.

In 2006, he was elected to ICMSA’s Dairy Council, representing the south-east. From there he rose to chair of the dairy committee – becoming the longest-serving dairy committee member. He then went on to hold the deputy presidency for the last six years – under former president John Comer.

“I’m on the dairy committee 11 years; so I have an understanding of where our policy came from during the quota and post-quota.

“I’ve seen a lot of highs and lows in milk price and how the whole thing has changed; there won’t be any knee-jerk reactions.

Dairy is how I make my income, dairy is what I have an interest in, the income of dairy farmers is my primary objective over the next number of years.

First of all, he intends to tackle milk price volatility and the early activation of the government’s Voluntary Supply Management Scheme for the dairy sector.

“We need to be sure that there is automatic intervention for skimmed milk powder come the milking season ahead.

“The way costs have gone, it is completely inadequate; we need to see the principle continued at a reasonable level. That is very, very important.

“Obviously the voluntary supply and reduction scheme was fundamental to success in 2016; we’d like to see that as a permanent option in the years ahead – albeit at a voluntary level which is a critical point.

“From a co-operative point of view we would like to see fixed milk price schemes as we believe they take a level of volatility out of the game,” he said.

Labour crunch looms

Speaking to AgriLand, McCormack warned that labour in the dairy sector is becoming an “impossible issue”.

“Land and labour are going to be the big restrictions on returns. There is only so much one individual can do. We saw last spring, and the spring before, that farmers were at burn-out point.

“They were only shadows of themselves physically and emotionally. It is at crisis point.

“Cow numbers are on the rise. The fear is there is going to be less and less people and that the squeeze is coming,” he said.

Although acknowledging the efforts made by Farm Relief Services (FRS) to stem the labour problem, he said recruitment is “nowhere near sufficient”.

The economy is improving; so some of the more skilled operators that were there during the recession are gone back to the buildings.

“We are facing a challenging scenario for 2018 in the spring. The real crunch point will come when we get a broken week.”

He is calling for the national roll-out of a training course to up-skill jobseekers, in receipt of Farm Assist payments, with the necessary skills to become dairy operatives.

Last September, more than 30 individuals took part in a pilot course, supported by the Department of Social Protection, Teagasc and farm organisations, in Kilkenny and Waterford.

We need to see that programme spun out further around the country; we need to see it compatible to number of hours worked a day; and it needs to ensure that social welfare benefits go hand-in-hand.

“We’ve seen it where people have signed off to work on farms, and after three months it would be up and they could be waiting another six months to get the benefits of the social welfare system back.

“From a farmer point of view it needs to be a safe, sufficient and calm place to work. But we also need to make it more attractive and improve conditions.

“The greatest, qualified person to come in and help on a farm, or work on a farm, is a fellow farmer. There are drystock farmers out there who may not want to milk cows; but, they may be willing to come in and do the machinery or fodder side of things,” he said.

The young new president says he is ready to tackle the challenges of Brexit, climate change and the looming reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

The next 12 months will give us a clear guideline of where CAP is going; it is a continuous evolution. It’s not that long ago since lads were punching cattle in the ears to draw payment; then there was decoupling and now there is convergence.

However, he cautions that greater autonomy under CAP could mean greater challenges ahead.

“Given our dependence on agriculture, and our environmental commitments for 2030, more autonomy could create a burden for farmers going forward.

“It is vital that the CAP budget is secured in the context of Brexit and that Member States will maintain the budget as it is. We want maximum flexibility; but we need to be sensible with that flexibility,” he said.

The big picture

With his photo now hanging next to many portraits of previous ICMSA presidents in the main hall at John Feely House in Limerick, McCormack is very aware of the legacy of the association – which now has over 16,000 members.

“I never had any desire to be on the wall; but, there are a lot of very, very strong household names there that provided leadership; it is a privilege to join them.

“John Comer was a great player to be beside, he was like Ronan O’Gara, no matter what ball you’d throw at him, he’d get the bounce to favour the ICMSA.

“To be the first elected unopposed is an honour. Hopefully it’s a sign that the association has finally come together – down through the years there were some tricky times. Internally we’re united and ready to put forward a very strong front.

I’m very much a team player and we will go forward together. I’d like to see that when my term would be up that I could look back and say ‘we made a difference’; that we made it viable and possible for commercial farmers to farm with the environmental issues that we face.

When asked how is he going to balance his new presidential role in conjunction with operations on his farm, where he milks more then 100 cows, McCormack broke into a bout of laughter.

“Geographically I’m close to our head office in Limerick; I’m reasonably central in the country and I’d be very disappointed if I didn’t have a very active part in the farm.

“I want to be farming in 20 years’ time. I’m very hands-on; I do my own AI so hopefully I will be able to continue some of those functions. Any dairy farmer wouldn’t like to be missing out of the dairy parlour too often,” he said, adding that milking will also offer him a form of escape from the challenges ahead.

“The cows don’t talk to you – so there is great peace in it too,” he smiled.