‘We need to ask the EU how much they value farmers’ lives’

A broad range of topics and issues were highlighted by farmers at the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) consultation meeting, organised by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, in the Hodson Bay Hotel, Athlone last night (Tuesday, February 20).

Recurring issues brought up by farmers on the night included the general discontent regarding farm inspections, direct payments distribution, suckler support and – crucially – farm safety.

Following a series of CAP information presentations given on the night, approximately 20 farmers spoke up and gave their views to a panel that included Minister of State Andrew Doyle.

The meeting was chaired by Brendan Gleeson, assistant attorney general at the Department of Agriculture, and presentations were given by: David Buckley of the department; Dr. Kevin Hanrahan of Teagasc; Tadhg O’Mahony of the EPA; and John Muldowney of the department’s environment unit.

Several farmers called for the CAP budget to be increased in spite of Brexit or, at the least, maintained, with farmers Padraig Joyce, John Cleary, Matthew Burns and Noel Conroy all making reference to this.

Beef farmer James Reynolds made the point that Ireland is now a net contributor to CAP. He argued that the €1.5 billion Ireland gets back from Europe should be ring-fenced for the country, regardless of the outcome of Brexit negotiations.

Redistribution was another key theme, with several farmers calling for payment caps and increased payments for the less profitable sectors – such as suckler farming.

‘They think more of the bats and the birds’

One of the key issues brought up on the night was farm safety.

One farmer, Mary Butler, called for an emphasis to be placed on environmental health and workplace practices in farmyards in the CAP reform.

She said there needs to be “greater collaboration with the Health and Safety Authority (HSA) about improving mortality and reducing farm accidents, and it’s definitely an area that needs to be improved”.

Look at the builders and building sites that have improved in the last 10 years; I think farmers and farming practices can improve like that too.

Vincent Nally of the Irish Rural Link, welcomed the inclusion of farm safety in the TAMS (Targeted Agricultural Mechanisation Scheme) programme; but, he called for far more to be done to deal with the astronomical problem currently at hand.

He said: “We’re going nowhere – the last number of years 50% of the fatalities in the overall work place are happening in farming – 10% of the overall workforce work is in farming – so it’s totally unacceptable.

The challenge is more than an Irish problem; because, we’re losing 20 farmers a week in Europe – that’s 1,000 farmers a year – and I think we need to ask the EU how much they value farmers’ lives. That’s a question we all need to ask.

“Europe – they don’t even have a policy on farm safety. They think more of the bats and the birds and the bees and the water quality than they do of farmers’ lives.

“We need behavioural change; because, it won’t happen itself. We need to sow the seed of behavioural change on farms and that will require investment. Europe has a duty of care to the farmers to support them on that front.”

Nally also referenced suicide and mental health, noting that the EU Commission recently had a minute’s silence for the 2,000 French farmers that died by suicide last year, adding that a farmer dies from suicide every fortnight in Ireland.

“Somebody will die in the next fortnight or three weeks, we’re going to have somebody – it’s happening every fortnight. That’s a 10-year stat. That’s the reality of the industry we work in,” he said.

Farm inspections ‘a terrifying experience’

Farm inspections was another point of contention for farmers present at the meeting in Athlone.

One farmer, John Culver, commented on the inspections he has received both from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Agriculture. He said: “It’s nothing short of disgraceful the way the EPA carries out inspections.”

The farmer recounted an inspection where – after receiving no notice – an EPA inspection was carried out on his land, which subsequently ordered a 5% reduction in his payments.

After successfully appealing this, when he got his payment – which was delayed until the end of the year – the deduction was still withheld. He did not get it until the following September.

Vincent Roddy also spoke on the inspection regime, describing it as “a terrifying experience“, adding: “I know most farmers would much prefer to see a visit from a member of Garda Siochana than they would to see a Department of Agriculture inspector.”

Roddy added that there seems to be a fairer approach taken with inspections in Northern Ireland than down South, despite both being carried out under the CAP. He also called for a review of the Department of Agriculture appeals process.

Calendar farming out of date?

‘Calendar farming’ was another topic of European regulation that farmers took issue with.

James Crooke, a speaker from the audience, noted that hedgecutting can’t be done at the moment because the weather and ground conditions are unsuitable while – in a few weeks’ time – it won’t be allowed because of the ban coming into effect.