Macra CEO: Brexit is up in lights for young farmers

Brexit is the most fundamental issue facing the Irish agriculture industry since the foundation of the State, Macra na Feirme CEO, Denis Duggan, has said.

In an interview with Agriland he said that from a young farmer’s perspective Brexit is up in lights.

And with a presidential election around the corner for the young farmers’ organisation, Duggan said that the next President of Macra will be in place for essentially the whole of the Brexit negotiation process.

“Brexit is a monumental shift as to where our markets are, you know the potential again for a border with the North, trade into the UK – to say it’s a significant threat to the agri-food industry and to young farmers is an understatement.

“It’s absolutely up in lights as a major challenge for us as an organisation and for the future President.”

Connected to the Brexit negotiations will be the negotiations around the next Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), Duggan said.

“Again a lot of the bulk on the CAP 2020 will be done over the next two years, most of the decision on how CAP2020 will affect young farmers will be made in the lifetime of the future President.”

Four months into the role as CEO of Macra, Duggan said that he’s loving the job.

It’s very challenging and a bit of a roller-coaster in terms of the learning curve in getting to know the structure and the membership of the organisation and the industry that supports it.

“There is tremendous goodwill to Macra and I’m always surprised at various meetings to find former members that are now chairmen of boards of co-ops or are wandering around the halls of Leinster House.

“There’s a great legacy in the organisation of people that have openly admitted that they’ve cut their teeth in Macra, they learned their debating skill or they learned how to chair meetings.

“I’ve often heard, the likes of Seamus O’Brien, retiring as Chairman of IFAC, that Macra was his university. The older generation of Macra members would say that.

“When I started the job, I would have been aware of those things but I wouldn’t have been necessarily aware of all of that.”

He said that there is no such thing as an average week in the job, with quite a bit of time being spent engaging with membership and attending meetings.

Challenges

When asked about the challenges of the organisation, the Tipperary native said that funding is always a challenge in the organisation.

“As a voluntary organisation balancing the books every year is a struggle, no different than an awful lot of businesses.

“I would look at the organisation in a very kind of business and commercial mindset. Yes, we’re a voluntary organisation, yes we’re a charity but ultimately our members are our customers and we need to be serving the needs of our members.

“If we’re not serving our members they don’t renew [their membership]. We need to constantly make sure that we’re meeting and exceeding the expectations of our members and similarly our sponsors.”

Strategic Planning Process

Macra’s Strategic Planning Process is currently underway, which is to set out the key areas of focus, broad areas of activity and priorities for the organisation over the next five to seven years.

Duggan said that from speaking to numerous past Presidents over the years, this is the first time the organisation has actively gone out and sought the views of members – of what they want going forward.

Similarly the organisation is embarking on that type of a consultative process with its various corporate sponsors, associate members, the media and others, he said.

That is a challenge in itself. In a positive sense its starting to highlight the real need for a vibrant young farmer network and similarly the need for a vibrant rural youth network. As an organisation we’re kind of juggling between the needs of both.

“A large cohort of our membership are from rural areas, some living in Dublin, but originally from rural areas. They have very different needs compared to our young farmer cohort and it’s to balance those needs.

“All of their needs are surfacing through the strategic planning process and we’ll be putting in place objectives for the organisation for the next five to seven years.

“Once we have the plan together we’ll decide if it’s going to be a five-year or a seven-year plan.

“On a personal level I’m conscious that I came into the job and six weeks in we had to kick-off a strategic planning process. It’s a challenge for any Chief Executive to come into any organisation and the first thing they do is such a process because it brings change to the organisation.

“It’s enough of stress on the organisation bringing in a new Chief Executive without bringing a planning process on top of it.”

That’s why we’re saying it might be a seven-year plan so that my successor has a little bit of a runway before he/she has to turn around and start looking at strategic planning in five years’ time.

Duggan said that the needs of young farmers include access to credit and access to land so things like Macra’s Land Mobility Service which was established a couple of years ago is really validated through the strategic planning process.

Then for the rural young person either living outside of Dublin or any of the cities they like the connection to home and to farming and the social aspect, he said.

“I often think that we talk about Facebook being the social network but in an Irish context, before Facebook there was Macra.”

Macra Membership

Macra currently has over 9,000 members and Duggan hopes that through the strategic planning process that Macra will have an objective there to increase it.

“It’s on the upward curve, it’s growing year-on-year. Back six, seven, eight years ago, at the time of recession, our young members were emigrating or cutting costs, so we suffered in that sense, with a lot of others and that now is being reversed and is on the upward trajectory.

“I’ve said it everywhere I go, I’d love to see a scenario in three or four years time where we’re looking at a membership of almost 14,000 and I think it’s very important that we have the ambition to go out and encourage people to join the organisation.

“You can be into sport or academics and find a home in Macra. There’s great scope for people to get involved.”

On his own relationship with the young farmers’ organisation, Duggan got involved with Macra about 15 years ago, while he was in college and a Macra debating team was short a member on the team.

I had the job of defending ‘why women should be no more than three feet away from the kitchen sink’ – we lost thank god.

“I can’t remember any of the details of the competition, I had totally forgotten the motion until I got this job and one of the other members of the debating team rang me up to say if that topic ever got out he’d kill me! So, I won’t be naming him.”

Where will Macra be in 10 years time?

Duggan said that in two years’ time the organisation will celebrate its 75th anniversary and in 10 years, 2027, it will be 83 years old.

“I’ll have five years done of those 10, the aspiration would be that you’re leaving it, no different than any of my predecessors, that you’re leaving it in a better place that you found it.

“I would hope that in 2027 you’re looking at an organisation that’s probably double its current membership. The membership is the lifeblood of the organisation, they bring activity, vibrancy and fun to the organisation.

“I’d hope that we’re looking back on an organisation that’s still as relevant in 10 years as it was in 1944 and probably more relevant.”

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