Opinion: IFA still faces its biggest issue – who can it represent?
Since the IFA debacle began in November last year, the association has managed to weather the worst of the media storm.
But, one of the most serious allegations that the farming body must face is its inability to effectively represent the interests all farmers.
While its modus operandi at the very top has been well and truly exposed, it remains to be seen whether the country’s largest faming body can justify to its members that it really can represent them all fairly and be all things to all farmers.
That’s a question that is coming to the surface more and more, as individuals and pockets of its membership begin to question the association’s value to them.
While each group, individually, may be small and represent a relatively small sector, such as pig and commonage farmers, the rumblings of discontent are growing as farmers decide to take action.
Last year, the Irish Natura and Hill Farmers Association (INHFA) was formed due to a perceived lack of representation among farmers with marginal or designated land. It has a mantra of ‘seeking fairness not favouritism’ and far from falling flat on its face, the organisation has grown its membership, carving out a strong niche for itself.
Last week, the Irish Malt Growers met and decided to expand this grouping so as to encompass ordinary tillage farmers. Their actions are backed by a strong group of 223 tillage farmers in Cork who say they have been poorly represented, as a sector, by the IFA.
These producers claim that the leadership of IFA in recent years had failed their sector badly, instead focusing primarily on the dairy sector.
Back in the 1990’s the Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmers Association (ICSA) was formed over what was regarded to be the inadequate representation of beef and sheep farmer interests by the IFA at that time. Today, the organisation claims to have over 10,000 members.
Meanwhile, the ICMSA resisted attempts by the IFA to bring it into the fold over the years and has remained resolutely dairy-focused with 16,000 members.
The IFA, on the other hand, claims to have over 80,000 members and represents farmers across all sectors, from cattle to aquaculture.
But how can the IFA keep southern dairy farmers, beef farmers in Leinster and the smaller western farmers – plus everyone in-between – happy?
With farmer figures at 139,860, according to the 2010 CSO census, it would seem that there are also farmers outside the loop of every farmer organisation and happy to have no official representation.
When one looks at the incomes of the 139,860 farmers it tells its own story. The average family farm income (FFI) was €26,974 in 2014.
The average dairy farm FFI was €68,877, while incomes on beef farms was, on average, between €10,271 and €13,834, depending on the enterprise. In fact, 40% of farms in 2014 earned less than €10,000 from farming.
More tellingly, the reliance on subsidies varies even more. Subsidies formed just 30% of dairy farm incomes while they accounted for 151% of cattle rearing farm incomes.
The notion of a ‘family farm’ is not enough to bridge the gap between those with serious dairy operations and other less profitable enterprises.
Beef farming lends itself to being a suitable part-time farming operation and the sustainability of many of these farms is underpinned by the off-farm income. In fact, it’s fair to say that the off-farm income simply subsidises uneconomical farms.
So, the question of whether the IFA can continue to claim that it properly represents every farmer and every farming sector is one that will be severely tested in the coming months.
The current levels of discontent would suggest that it will be a very difficult job to do in the future. As a result, the organisation faces the possibility of diluting its own relevance by trying to be all things to all people.