The Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA) recently elected Stephen Arthur as the new chairperson of the IFA National Dairy Committee.

Arthur, a dairy farmer from Rathdrum in Co. Wicklow, had previously held the role of vice-chair of the Dairy Committee.

Following Tom Phelan’s decision to step down as chairperson of the committee back in February to contest an election for a seat on the board of Glanbia Co-op, Stephen Arthur had been acting chairperson.

Agriland spoke to Stephen Arthur following his election and discussed his goals and prospects for the dairy sector for the rest of 2021 and beyond.

Stephen Arthur on his plans for the role

Arthur told Agriland that he wants to ensure strong representation for dairy farmers in his new role: ”I want to represent Irish family dairy farms, which are the backbone of the Irish dairy sector.

”One of the biggest issue on the ground is that farming families are not receiving a fair wage. On many Irish farms there are two or three generations working on the farm and with all the hours they put in, they are not receiving a fair wage.

”The figures are released showing great profits on dairy farms, but family wages are not included in these figures.

”We are being asked to comply with more environmental regulations and we are happy to do so – farmers have already proven that with a number of schemes adopted on farms – but we need to receive a fair price for the high quality product we are producing,” he added.

”One of the main issues I want to address is [that] farms have to keep expanding to maintain a level of income; this is not sustainable.”

Arthur explained that Irish agriculture has a great story to tell in terms of producing milk from grass. Along with this, he said that Irish dairy products are in demand with figures from Ornua showing that 6,000 units per hour of Kerrygold butter is sold internationally.

”Consumers want our products, with the key to these products being the family farm model. Protecting the family farm model is important, along with ensuring that the next generation wants to continue with farming,” he explained.

”Every year, farmers are having to work harder to produce products the consumer wants and we are receiving the same price we got 30 years ago.

”Consumers want a greener product but they are not willing to pay for it. Dairy farmers are not willing to take any less for the milk we produce. It is time that processors go to the market and give farmers a fair price for the top class product we produce.”

NI milk prices

”If you’re not economically sustainable, it is going to be very hard to environmentally sustainable,” he said.

Prospects for dairy sector in 2021

In terms of the outlook for the rest of 2021 for the dairy sector, and in particular the issue some Glanbia suppliers are facing, Arthur said: ”The price trend is positive at the minute and I would be optimistic about the rest of the year.

”Co-ops need to follow the trend and pay producers a fair price; they can be very quick to lower the price when the market drops.

”The cost on farms continues to rise: meal is up; fertiliser is up; grass growth has been poor so far this year; we need a fair price.

”The announcement from Glanbia was a surprise to everyone, but we have had a number of meetings with Glanbia and have seen some positives taken from these meetings.

”The court case result was great; it means the restrictions will only be temporary, but it is concerning that a planning application was able to make it so far before there was an objection,” he added.

An Taisce had taken a High Court case against a decision by An Bord Pleanála to allow Glanbia build a new cheese manufacturing facility at its Belview site in Co. Kilkenny, however earlier this week, the High Court allowed the development to proceed.

Dairy sector peak restrictions

In terms of peak milk restrictions coming down the line for dairy farmers, Arthur said: “A lot of farmers have invested heavily in their farms with plans to expand and hopefully banks will understand that farmers may be under pressure while the peak restrictions are in place.”

Image-source-AgriLand-milking-parlour north cork

”It is very easy for environmental groups to object to the development of dairy processing plant, without any financial reasoning.

”That plant [Glanbia Belview] will deliver for family farms and allow sustainable growth of the dairy sector within the region. Processing jobs are highly skilled well-paid jobs, with these plants operating in rural communities. If those jobs were not there, that is a serious loss to rural Ireland and those local communities.

”My county, Wicklow alone, received €28 million from milk cheques last year, which is a huge boost to the local communities within the county.

”The outlook for the sector in my opinion is very positive with challenges, but nothing that cannot be solved with dialogue and conversation finding common ground with the climate action groups.

“It all comes back to the consumer; the consumer is the third leg to the three-leg chair. They have to contribute as we cannot afford to produce cheap food anymore,” Arthur added.

Green image for dairy

Agriland asked Arthur about the challenges the sector will face in terms of carbon emissions and climate action goals.

He said: “We do not need a green image, we have one. Our carbon footprint for producing milk is half the world average. Our cows are fed on grass producing milk in a sustainable way.

”The demand for our produce internationally proves this. Internationally, consumers are willing to pay a premium for high-quality grass-fed products.

”Irish farmers have done a great job in adapting to reducing emissions on farm already. Farmers have adopted the EBI [Economic Breeding Index], which has done a great job of making the national herd very efficient at producing milk from grazed grass.”

He added that: ”Irish farmers continue to adapt their farm practices to meet environmental requirements, introducing cover swards to reduce chemical nitrogen (N) and adding multi-spieces swards onto farms.

”I often have an image in my head of a family driving to Dublin Airport to go on holidays and looking at a field of cows and saying that is what is causing global warming.

”Currently Irish farms have no way of proving how much carbon we take in. The VistaMilk programme will hopefully produce true and accurate figures for this,” Arthur added.

”Agriculture is to easy to blame. It will be nice to see, through the signpost farms, what the actual figures are. I am a dairy farmer, but I would also consider myself an environmentalist and conservationist – dairy farmers have always been custodians of the land and we will continue to do so.

”D4 politics is directing the game and creating a disconnect between rural and urban Ireland.

”Irish farmers have a good story to tell, it has to be protected and nurtured – the consumer needs to step up to the mark and pay for the higher quality low-carbon products,” he continued.

Reality of consumer demand

Stephen Arthur concluded explaining that: ”the day of cheap food is gone and processors need to look for the money from the market. He emphasised that international consumers are willing to pay a premium for Irish milk, so Irish consumers should be willing to do so as well.

“Farmers have become very efficient at what we do, but the prices we receive are not enough to cover the cost of our efficiencies. Farmers are not going to accept any more cuts… It is time for the consumer to step up.

“We need to be economically sustainable, environmentally sustainable and most importantly, socially sustainable,” he concluded.