This post first appeared online at http://www.thatsfarming.com in January 2018

Has there ever been so much pressure on farmers from campaign groups? To the fore are those dedicated to halting and reversing climate change and those who wish to see an end to animal agriculture. Sometimes the two are combined and we are told we can only save the Planet if we forsake consuming all animal-derived products; as if the two are inexorably linked.

As the campaigning voices become stronger, what becomes evident is how weak the response is from the organisations that represent farmers. True, on RTE the other night Patrick Kent of the ICSA, did come forward to debate a representative of the vegan lobby on the merits of a vegan diet. Apart from touching upon the enhanced value of grass-fed [soon to be eclipsed by broader thinking in itself] meat, one wondered what there was to be gained from debating the nutritional merits of meat or no meat. Nutrition is a fluid subject at present, but it does come down to individual choice. It does not provide the high-ground that farmers need to find within the debate.

There are far better arguments that cattle farmers can make when it comes to countering the claims made by campaigners. At times they would do better to just listen. At times it is better to bend with the wind. Many campaigners are highly articulate and know the merits of the simple message. In an age of the soundbite, reaching an audience more attuned to such is relatively easy. In contrast, the message that farming needs to get across is far more complex. Why; because the issues are.

Sadly, that means doing the research. It is about putting forward coherent, well thought out and well-structured arguments. It means accepting, one hates to say, that such research may highlight that change has to happen. The systems that we are employing may not be the ones best suited to future needs. We may have to adapt to meet genuine concerns over climate change. And we may have to change to meet the concerns of the less radical of animal lobbyists; that is before their radical cousins do untold damage to our markets. What we cannot adopt is extreme, back-to-the-wall, defensive positions as no change is not an option.

A very interesting article crossed my desk this week. It was a Blog post by La Chef. [https://lachefnet.wordpress.com/2018/01/16/george-monbiot-once-again-tilting-at-the-wrong-windmill/] It was a well-thought out and well written response to one George Monbiot; himself a very articulate, well followed questioner of animal agriculture. The article seeks to provide a more comprehensive answer to the role of grazed livestock as a food source. And it places them within the context of climate change. It is well worth spending a few minutes reading.

Do not, however, assume that it is a get-out-of-jail-free card for Irish cattle farming. If anything, doing the research will show that change is required and that producing food within the context of climate change, the environment per se, and the concerns of [less radical] animal welfare groups, means altering the way things are done. And as I keep advocating, this also means getting closer to the consumer; an absolute must if family farms are to have a future.

Beyond the post in La Chef, I would suggest that one finds the time to read ‘Defending Beef’ by Nicolette Hahn-Nimen. Nicolette is a lawyer, an animal-welfare lobbyist, a vegetarian and married to a cattle rancher! She is one of the most able advocates for beef production around. But it is about beef reared the right way. And doing it the right way is not about marketing slogans, it is about how you produce it and building and selling the back story. There is a major difference.

Closer to home, another to read up on is Richard Young, Policy Director of the Sustainable Food Trust. Richard has spent much of his time bringing together the many complex issues around what comprises sustainable food systems. It has enabled him to become a forthright advocate for keeping grazing livestock within farming systems that provide nutritious food, preserve and enhance the environment and biodiversity, and minimize GHG emissions. It is a position of advocacy that you do not reach overnight. It takes hours, days, weeks, months and years of research and thought and it is far from complete. It is now going to take endless patience to slowly get the message across. Richard is now currently preparing the case for the return of small, local abattoirs to the UK.

How such contrasts to the position in Ireland. Here, just who is doing this work? Who is taking on the role of defending Irish family cattle farms? It is not about who can crow the loudest; it is about doing the hard yards. It is about finding the systems best suited to a rapidly changing environment, one where the lobbyist, the consumer and the taxpayer will only have a greater say. It is about identifying what works and making the case to these more than interested parties that what you are doing is the way forward to produce food and to address their significant concerns.

Judging by recent account disclosures, Irish farmers spend a lot upon their representation. But where are their representatives in this debate? Is it fair to say that they just do not want to go there? Do they not have the ammunition to fight with? Or is it just the fear of finding out that they might have to tell their members that they will have to change? The Irish farmer should expect and demand more. For all their expenditure they should not be relying on others to articulate their case.  Irish family farms will not have a sustainable future if they are reliant on the taxpayer, but appealing for ‘support’ is often the only game in town. Whereas, considering what is happening, Irish farmers need to be represented by more than one-trick ponies.


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment


This post first appeared online at http://www.thatsfarming.com in January 2018

To quote the Woodland Trust on the 7th January 2018, “We’re thrilled to announce that… we plan to create an exciting new Northern Forest”. No, despite some local communities thinking otherwise, this does not relate to any unofficial plans for Counties Leitrim, Cavan, Mayo, Roscommon and Sligo but a project that “will embrace the major cities of Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield, Leeds, Chester and Hull as well as major towns across the north [of England]”.

One assumes that as the Northern Forest will “deliver major environmental, social and economic benefits that complement the significant growth, investment and new infrastructure that is planned for the north of England” that it will be broadly welcomed by the region’s communities. The Trust goes on to say that “It will deliver a better environment for all by: improving air quality in our towns and cities; mitigating flood risk in key catchments; supporting the rural economy through tourism, recreation and timber production; connecting people with nature; and helping to deliver improvements to health and wellbeing through welcoming and accessible local green spaces”.

In contrast, two Irish MEPs, Marian Harkin and Mairead McGuinness have been visiting localities in the north of the Republic who are seriously concerned that their communities are disappearing into newly planted tracts of commercial softwood forestry. It is a situation that is only likely to get worse as more planting is encouraged to help meet GHG emission targets. And that planting will happen where economic values of land are lowest and where alternative land uses cannot compete.

One would imagine that the environmental lobby would be happy to see more tree planting but no they are fickler than that. Apparently, they like monocultured conifer plantations only a tad less than Ireland’s failure to halt rising GHG emissions. Frankly, conifer plantings are a pretty blunt instrument to address GHG emissions with, but they are indicative of Ireland’s response to climate change.

Extensive, typically suckler beef, has been identified as the sacrificial cow with respect to land use change. She is an easy target when you do not account for the carbon sequestration side of her grazing. As we move into an era of fines linked to GHG emissions, the economic output of land using activities will become an increasingly important factor [and one that over-rides the ‘we have low GHG per unit of food’ argument] and that will focus more attention onto extensive beef production. Complicating the scenario is, nonetheless, how do you value the role of cattle in managing our landscapes and preserving/enhancing the biodiversity that they encapsulated within them?

Simply, conifer plantations are a poor-quality, knee-jerk reaction to Ireland’s GHG situation. It is one that avoids looking too closely at the sacred cow. One has also heard the plantings being justified on the basis that Ireland has a natural advantage when it comes to producing softwoods, because they grow fast. That high-quality softwoods come from much higher northern latitudes where land values are low, and thus where trees can be grown very slowly, is a fact that seems to have slipped under the radar. Unless cheap is a primary motive, you buy Scandinavian or Siberian.

A common complaint from those in the way of the New Irish Northern Forest is that commercial plantings are competing for agricultural land with local farmers who are trying to grow their businesses. The blunt response is, of course, to say that it is simple economics, if they cannot pay the asking price they cannot access the land. It is a line that is not going down well with local communities who see farming as the fundamental centre of their existence. As that is the case and with such at stake, this debate needs to move up a level or two.

As an aside, are we fully exploring the agroforestry options? Although most land will not be well suited, should we be planting fruit and nuts, either as orchards or integrated with livestock systems? If GHG mitigation is crucial, maybe we should again be planting fruit on the best land, rather than keeping cows to produce milk for milk powder for export to whoever can be found to buy it. Maybe Irish folk would appreciate the chance to buy a more diversified range of local produce? And then we should be looking at how we can integrate forestry with extensive meat production.

There is, of course, a fundamental weakness when it comes to producing more specialized food products either on valuable landscapes or within agro-forestry systems, and that is the lack of routes to markets for such produce. If all farm produce is reduced to a commodity by the supply-chains, whether it exits the farm gate as premium or not, what chance is there to obtain a market-derived, premium price? The fact that food processing seems to be excluded from rural development funding programmes, only makes this serious shortfall situation worse.

Irish farmers on tough terrain need to be producing valuable produce, period. Their local communities need to be able to process, enhance and add value to that produce. It is the systemic extraction of the very raw materials that local communities need to be processing that is destroying rural Ireland, albeit that those communities on the marginal lands are going first. It is nothing new and it is happening in upland and marginal regions everywhere. Whether one chooses to address the problem head on or not is another matter.

There is an on-going, probably deepening, rural crisis that can only be addressed through highly coherent, economic and environmentally-focused rural development planning that has farming and food at its centre. It is not happening. It is a policy failure that needs to be called out. Instead we are choosing to sweep many Irish communities under a carpet of conifers. There must be room for more trees, for more woodlands, even forests, but they must coexist with thriving rural communities.

Posted in Thats Farming, Uncategorized | Leave a comment


This post first appeared online at http://www.thatsfarming.com in January 2018

It has been fascinating following proceedings from Oxford this week, albeit from a distance. Until a decade ago we only had the Oxford Farming Conference but, apparently, a segment of the farming community felt that they were not well represented by such a ‘mainstream’ farming event. Hence, they launched the Oxford Real Farming Conference. This year, it is reported that there were twice as many delegates at the ORFC with many more unable to obtain tickets. Would this suggest that it is now time to reflect on what we perceive as ‘mainstream’ or ‘conventional’ farming?

When it started, the ORFC was about ‘alternative’ farming methods. It was for those who were unable to embrace the green revolution of the later half of the 20th Century. One could only sympathise with their predicament and allow them to get on and do their own thing and to set up their own fringe conference in Oxford. After all they presented no threat to anyone who understood that serious farmers were conventional farmers. A decade on and should we be asking ‘who is mainstream now’? True, one swallow does not make a summer, but is something afoot?

How to describe the difference between the two. Both conferences presented dynamic programmes focused on change, innovation and seeking new approaches to feed society. The difference I would say, and highlight is one of control, as obscure as that may sound.

In recent decades the farming community has lost control of the food supply chains. Ignoring the loss of the ‘Boards’ in the UK, supermarket and thereafter processing has become increasingly consolidated with post-farm-gate supply-chain power polarizing into a few hands. It is little better pre-farm-gate if one considers the provision of the ‘cides’ and fertilizers. If you are willing to farm conventionally, there is little room to manoeuvre and others control your destiny. I would suggest that typical ORFC delegates are unwilling to accept such strictures on their farming and/or food businesses. And they are now turning their minds to starting a 21st Century farming revolution so that they can create a trading and farming environment that suites their objectives better.

For those at the ORFC, it is about using farming systems that emphasis ‘husbandry’. It is all about utilizing the resources available within the farm gate. It is not about ‘buying in’ production. It is about farming in a fashion that is less reliant on others. Remove the dependence on others and you inevitably develop a totally different approach to farming. It is positively retro but scratch the surface and you will realize that this is no retro, backwards, movement. At its core is the desire to understand our soils and to manage farms as the complete ecosystems that they should be. It is the farming of the 21st Century notwithstanding that it has not gone mainstream, yet. And in urbanized, wealthy countries where food production is and will be increasingly scrutinized, it will.

The ORFC is not just about, for example, regenerative agriculture, it is about instigating change beyond the farm gate. It is about regaining some, albeit only a little in the beginning, control over the supply chain. There have been sessions on micro-dairies and the presentation of a new report on the availability of small-scale abattoirs; a part of the rural economy that is vital to farmers who wish to develop 100% pasture-fed, heritage breed, or just local, meat products. If food is going to go local again, it needs a certain infrastructure and its needs advocates for its creation. The Minister from DEFRA highlighted the importance of premium products to a post-Brexit UK farming community and, thankfully, some are pointing out that their creation needs route-to-market investment.

Brexit is providing a momentum change. It is about ‘taking back control’ and this will occur with the farming sector more than any other. Leaving a Common Agricultural Policy, often seen as disliked by the UK public, was what much of the UK farming community voted for. That doing so is an opportunity for change has, however, been seized upon by everyone else who has an interest in food, farming, the environment, animal welfare, the countryside… Oddly enough, many of their views will sit comfortably with those who attended the ORFC. And one suspects that a few delegates at ORFC represented ‘green’ organisations that see Brexit as their game-changing opportunity.

Further, momentum in a new direction is also coming from within the political establishment itself. Michael Gove has been making ‘interesting’ noises for a while but at the ORFC he was sharing the platform with Zak Goldsmith, a Tory Member of Parliament who at one time edited the Ecologist, a publication that was founded by his Uncle.  Achieving a Green Brexit will be high on his agenda. And it will not be a difficult sell within Westminster, the parliamentary house of an urbanized democracy.

A Green Brexit, so long as it accompanied by some food-sector free-trade to placate the Tory Right, will largely gain a cross-party consensus. A policy for a two-tier agriculture is also beginning to look increasingly likely. The UK farmer will be encouraged to focus upon the top end of the home and export markets whilst comparative-advantage-based trade of suitably quality-assured commodities will function at the lower end; the aim being to support UK rural and farming communities to thrive via market sales of high-value produce [and public goods provision like water catchment and landscape management] while allowing the consumer to benefit from free trade. For historic trading partners like Ireland, it indicates how the land will lie post-Brexit. All UK market segments will be open for business; if you have the products to compete with domestic farmers at the top or low-cost global producers at the bottom. It will be Ireland’s choice.

As to the UK farming community it needs to sail with and not into the wind. It needs to ensure that post-Brexit farming policy delivers a framework that provides UK farmers with the best opportunity to earn a fair living [something many have failed to achieve in recent years]. Seeing farming and food policy reform in terms of taking back control of some of the food chain and the profits that it generates is where one focus must be. The other will be the creation of a framework that enables UK farms to deliver to the market premium products that meet the multiple specifications that a modern, premium foods market demands. Ultimately, it is about delivering farm incomes and for the environment, the two are highly compatible, and it is time that we all accepted that to achieve such will require another revolution, in our thoughts and in our actions.

Posted in Thats Farming, Uncategorized | Leave a comment


This post first appeared online at http://www.thatsfarming.com on the 22nd December 2017

If ever there is an industry that is caught between a few rocks and several hard places, it is the Irish tillage industry. Clearly, judging by the yields achieved and from general observations, the tillage side is populated by many highly capable farmers delivering some of the best production levels to be found anywhere. There, unfortunately, ends the positives.

The scale of the Irish tillage sector and tillage farms does not compare to the global players

In global, even European terms, Ireland does not have a large cereal growing area. Typically, it has been about 300,000 hectares, although the 2017 area fell to a near 25-year low of 270,000 hectares. To place the 2015 cereals area [FAO] in a wider EU context, Ireland’s cereal area is 4.3%, 5.5% and 6.8% of that in France, Germany and Poland. It is about 10% of the UK’s.

A snapshot of from 2014 shows, however, that Irish farmers are the leader when it comes to yields. Irish wheat yields were 10.0t/ha compared to 7.4t, 8.6t and 5.0t in France, Germany and Poland.

Irish farmers have compensated for a lack of economies of scale through higher yields; but that can only go so far. Judging by the annual appearance of the words ‘tillage crisis’, they are continuously squeezed by rising input costs, in part due to the small local market, and farm-gate prices linked to global prices by buyers having ready access to imported alternatives. They also sell to those who add little value and/or create products/commodities destined for, or price-linked to, global markets.

Too much reliance on selling to end users who are heavily focused on lower-value markets

The desire to ‘punch above our weight’ seems to be commonplace in the Irish agri-foods sector. Irish farmers cannot, however, compete on scale or cost [when full costs are considered]. Where the livestock sectors do try, they are fuelled by either imported feedstuffs or imported nitrogen fertilizers, or both. Yes, Ireland does have grass, but in the future, it will be more about legumes than grass per se and that will change the livestock farming landscape and its geographic emphasis.

If one accepts that the Netherlands is a successful agri-food nation, albeit one that must battle the environmental consequences, it is because of its strategic location that, i) opens to the major central European markets and, ii) has allowed the Dutch to create a massive importation infrastructure for animal feeds. They are benefits that Ireland does not enjoy. Importing to ‘buy’ production, may provide a system that can work for others, and even some in Ireland’s livestock and food-processing sectors, but it does not help those trying to operate within Ireland’s tillage sector.

For Irish tillage to have a future, does it need to exit the ‘system’ into which it is manacled?

An assessment of all livestock feeds used in Ireland [c. six million tonnes] show that around 60% is imported. For protein feeds, it is much higher. The next investigatory step needs to be a sector-by-sector analysis of the livestock industry to reveal who is using what. Such an analysis should then inform tillage farmers what, how and for whom they should be producing feed. Judging by recent incomes, they have no future producing generic feeds for those selling commodities, albeit they may be ‘premiumized’ by, amongst other approaches, the use of generic ‘Irish’ labelling.

As small-scale producers, surely Irish tillage farmers need to be targeting markets that can enhance the farm-gate price they receive for each tonne produced. Their focus must be on both yields and enhancing their farm-gate price. What value-added can be obtained if the Irish grower only sells grains for animal feeds where they are only one part of a ration that also contains imported feeds with a weaker provenance? If there is no clear categorization of feeds by source, how can Irish livestock farmers [and processors] make stronger claims about their own green credentials?

The small and shrinking tillage sector means that there are limitations on national Irish sustainability claims; not least when consumers concerns include GM crops {Argentinian soymeal] and PKE [palm oil expansion into rainforests], to name but two. Given the scale of feed imports, it is never going to be possible for all livestock sectors to use only Irish-sourced grains. With protein feeds, as beneficial as it will be to grow more pulses within the rotation, there will always be a need for imports.

Focus on consumers’ environmental concerns to enhance both products and farm-gate prices

A variety of environmental issues are rapidly coming to the fore. Organic growers have long-since responded but there are others who are adopting and developing conservation agriculture and using minimum tillage. Are they being rewarded by the market? They should be. The products and market channels need to be developed to allow this to happen. Further, there is also an argument for saying that they are seeking to deliver public goods for which they should be rewarded via the public purse.

Be highly selective and target end-users who can add-value and pay a higher farm-gate price

Hence, it makes sense for the tillage sector to become selective and to target end-users who can realistically add market value to their own products by using only fully-traceable Irish feeds.

For example, malting barley growers produce the raw materials for high-value, consumer-facing products and they need to be fully rewarded for doing so. Given the post-farm-gate structure of the sector it appears that there needs to be greater sales options for farmers. The opening of new distilleries and breweries should begin to help, so long as the independent maltings exist to complete the chain. Irish farmers need competition to ensure they benefit from provenance claims made by those who use their produce within their products and highlight it in their marketing.

Targeting buyers who can utilize Irish grains to differentiate their products and to add value to them should be the way forwards for the tillage sector. It will, however, not happen without the tillage sector being highly proactive and it will certainly not happen overnight.

The historic development of grain intakes, consolidation, drying, storing, milling and handling means that the entire logistical system is not ideally suited to handling differentiated grains. Hence, the tillage sector needs to campaign for support for it to create the infrastructure needed to enhance its flexibility to supply local, more-niche markets. In this it will need the support of independently-minded concerns operating within the post-farm-gate, cereals and protein feeds supply-chains.

For such a strategy to begin to work, the tillage sector also needs to campaign for the development of a high-value foods sector in Ireland. With the development of such, tillage farmers will have the diversified, higher-value market that they need. They need to be the key supplier of those creating high-quality, traceable and eco-friendly products. Their future does not lie in being a supplier of ‘standard’ animal feeds for those whose raison d’etre is to compete globally on cost.

Posted in Thats Farming, Uncategorized | Leave a comment


This post first appeared online at http://www.thatsfarming.com on the 11th December 2017

A few days ago, I suggested that a tax on nitrogen might be a practical way to address some environmental issues. Of course, this would increase farm production costs in a trading environment where the cost is unlikely to be passed onto the consumer. Hardly satisfactory.

Further, there is also concern about recent rises in nitrogen prices, albeit they are coming off a 2016/17 low that was 20% or so under the 2011/15 average. There also remains concerns among farmers that prices are already higher due to tariffs on imports into the EU and the heavy trading weight of the few manufacturers operating within the market.

To take a broader view, looking forwards, given the reliance of the artificial nitrogen manufacturing process on limited supplies of natural gas, even if fracking is used more extensively, and the unacceptability of extracting further fossil fuels, one should plan for ongoing price increases. It is, therefore, likely that market mechanisms will start to restrict usage, thus making a tax unnecessary.

Beyond a likely increase in cost, there are other reasons to look to reduce artificial nitrogen usage. In terms of nutrients, Ireland now imports between 300,000 and 350,000 tonnes of nitrogen a year. This equates to just over a million tonnes of nitrogen-containing fertilizers. In addition to the financial cost, which should still be returned as enhanced farm output], there are question marks over GHG emissions from manufacturing and spreading nitrogen fertilizers and nitrate leakage into acquirers, rivers, lakes and, ultimately, our drinking water supplies.

Notwithstanding dedicated organic production, one recognizes that tillage cropping is difficult without artificial nitrogen. A move to rotations that include nitrogen-fixing pulses can help reduce total rotational N requirements; albeit the pulses only leave a residual of 40kg/N/ha or so for the succeeding cereal crop.  Using less nitrogen will mean it again becomes all about soil fertility building. Hence, one is beginning to read more about returning rotational leys and grazing livestock to tillage land, but maintaining yields will be difficult. Ultimately, it will come down to obtaining an enhanced value for the produce that relates to the eco-friendliness of the farming system employed [as with certified organic] and which is paid for by the final consumer.

In these days of poor tillage profitability, restricting nitrogen usage without any value-added will make little sense to the farmer. There should, however, be opportunities for Irish tillage farmers to provide the raw materials for livestock farmers who produce higher-value, ‘eco-friendly’ products [not least with respect to growing protein crops] but it depends on the products and routes to markets existing. Both must be developed further in Ireland. As time goes on, it is unlikely that Irish tillage farming will make sense if it produces only generic animal feed that competes head on with imports from large-scale, international producers. Restricted nitrogen usage will only make it worse.

If one is willing to look at the research being done into using clovers and multi-species swards [as per www.smartgrass.ie] there may be greater opportunities to reduce grassland nitrogen usage without compromising production or financial returns. Where there is a focus on utilizing a long-growing season one does, nevertheless, appreciate that more work needs to be done to ensure the length of the grazing season. That said, one wonders if early season grazing may also fall foul of regulations to minimize nitrate seepage from grazing pastures at the very start of Spring. Simply, nitrate pollution, in its various forms, will inevitably impact upon the operation of current farming systems.

Potentially, the nitrates issue may mean that Irish dairy farmers must move away from intensive near-grass-only systems. One already reads that New Zealand is being forced into a rethink. It will not be easy because what nay appear as a simple change has manifold impacts upon the farm business, investment decisions and the returns needed to provide economic viability. As with tillage, a shortfall in Ireland relates to not having supply chains that can reward the farmer for changing to farming systems that provide consumers with multiple benefits that go beyond food provision alone.

Ultimately, reducing nitrogen usage must go together with fully independent, thus publicly-funded, research. The research will be into developing farming systems that use less nitrogen and into those precision farming techniques which improve the efficiency of what nitrogen is applied.

Hence, the proposal is that the farming organisations should establish year-on-year targets to voluntarily reduce artificial nitrogen usage across the industry. By doing so they will:

  • address any trading imbalances that are increasing nitrogen fertilizer prices for Irish farmers
  • focus farmers and researchers on husbandry techniques that are under the farmer’s control
  • replace imported to the farm and country costs with ‘localized’ costs and management skills
  • target the significant GHG emissions sustained when applying and manufacturing artificial N
  • minimize the risks to aquifers, rivers, lakes, seas and drinking waters from nitrogen seepage
  • enhance the chances for flora and fauna through establishing more species-diverse pastures
  • improve the above and below ground tillage farming environments by diversifying cropping
Posted in Thats Farming, Uncategorized | 1 Comment


This post first appeared online at http://www.thatsfarming.com on the 23rd November 2017

After the recent suggestion that there should be a tax levied on GHG emissions from agriculture, will a proposal to tax nitrogen fertilizers be next?

Whilst I have doubts about the workability of the former, a nitrogen tax may not be as fraught with implementation difficulties. Poorly thought out a GHG tax might not even deliver the desired results whereas anyone who has studied agricultural economics will understand what a nitrogen response curve is and appreciate that an increase in the price of nitrogen should reduce its usage. The consequences for farm incomes and food production may, however, not be so easily identified.

Why the concern about nitrogen fertilizers [and nitrogen ‘leakage’ from agriculture per se]? There are health concerns about nitrates in drinking water and ecological concerns about the quality of our rivers and lakes. Only a few days ago the British Geological Survey published a report about the slow seepage of nitrates from soils through the underlying rocks and into aquafers used for drinking water. And then there are nitrous oxide losses into the atmosphere from applying nitrogen fertilizers to add to GHG levels and ozone depletion. And then there is the usage of fossil fuels [natural gas] in the production of the nitrogen fertilizers themselves. The charge sheet is rather long.

In defence of artificial nitrogen, one can say that the Haber-Bosch process has made a major contribution to global food production over the last century. Food prices would not be as cheap today without the ready availability of artificial nitrogen to stimulate plant growth. One also doubts if urbanization would have been able to occur to the same degree without society being freed from the constraints of having to locally recycle nutrients back to the land from whence the urbanites food originated. Artificial nitrogen allowed the revolution in the way humans live.

The Sustainable Food Trust in the UK has just published a report that highlights the externalities [the costs of our food that are not measured by the market price alone] of our current methods of food production. It is far from an exact science but as they acknowledge, “this report attempts to help address the knowledge gap… by bringing together the most up-to-date evidence which quantifies and monetises the diverse negative impacts of the UK food system” (The Hidden Cost of UK Food, The Sustainable Food Trust, November 2017).

The report has specific comments to make about nitrogen fertilizers; “conversion of inert nitrogen in the air we breathe to reactive nitrogen (essentially ammonia, artificial nitrogen fertilisers and oxides of nitrogen) has increased 20-fold over the last century… activities and processes related to agriculture – such as fertiliser manufacture, animal manure storage and application, and soil nitrification, denitrification and degradation – make the farming sector by far the largest source of pollution from reactive nitrogen, responsible for approximately two-thirds of all nitrogen pollution of the atmosphere and aquatic environment, while transport and energy production account for one-third between them”. It goes onto state that, “the negative costs to society of nitrogen fertilisation in the EU27 exceeds its contribution to the gross value added to the primary agricultural sector by its use, by €70 billion per year”.

And one can also add that the availability of artificial fertilizers has allowed the extensive development of monoculture-based farming that is divorced from soil fertility building practices. Monocultures are also being implicated in soil degradation, biodiversity loss and the development of naturally-evolving resistance to our modern food-producing solutions. It is difficult to ignore the probability that the food systems that we have developed over the last 60-70 years have come at a yet to be fully unquantified cost to society. Then again, as with climate change, one can be pretty sure that there will be those who prefer denial to entering a constructive debate about change.

Agree or disagree with such findings, it is quite an opening salvo to make in a debate about the true cost of our food. Interestingly, the report was discussed on the BBC’s Farming Today and a spokesperson for Nestle immediately responded by expressing their willingness to engage in the debate over the environmental and social costs of food. If the wider farming community chooses to ignore the issue, there will be those further along the food supply chain who will not, and they will, as through their demands for the implementation of earlier quality assurance schemes, force the issue. The question for farmers is, do they want to be ahead of the curve or to wait until they must dance to the tune called by others?

True, artificial nitrogen has facilitated social and economic development as we know it. Without it, societal change would have been limited by the need to use farming systems that directly secure nitrogen from the atmosphere. Nevertheless, food systems based upon artificial nitrogen have, apparently, generated significant external costs that we are now only just beginning to understand and to quantify. And the more we understand them, the greater will be the pressure placed upon food producers to change to mitigate them. It is why we are heading into a period of unprecedented change for farming and food systems. To carry on as before will not be an option.

The above said, we must ensure that an external cost of change is not farm incomes and the welfare of farmers. To do so we need to adopt a changed mindset; we need to engage, and we need to actively seek out the truly sustainable alternatives that work for the environment and farmers. They are thankfully appearing, albeit often not from within the mainstream of farming or research.

A case in point is Ireland’s own Smartgrass project [similar research is occurring elsewhere] that seeks out “how to produce high quality/high yielding grassland forage in an environmentally sustainable way”. One aspect of their work is the use of multi-species swards to maintain production while using less nitrogen fertilizers. The adoption of precision agricultural techniques that better target nitrogen use is another. Such work should have multiple benefits to all, the farmer included. In theory, the losers will be those who manufacture nitrogen fertilizers but, as with those who build the soon to be defunct combustion engine, one can expect that they will adapt and change to keep the economic wolf from their own door. Nobody really likes change, but sometimes it is inevitable.

Posted in Thats Farming | 2 Comments


This post first appeared online at http://www.thatsfarming.com on the 27th November 2017

Reading the press, one notices that we are again being regaled with more about dairy expansion.

Now I have no objections to expansion per se, if it is done in the right way, for the right reasons and fully considers all the factors that will impinge on such an investment decision going forwards.

I do not, however, agree with expansion when expansion is undertaken primarily to compensate for low farm-gate prices. Of course, in certain locations, scale can provide the solution, but Ireland is not one of them. It is a small country with a difficult climate and has major constraints in terms of land accessibility. I am greatly concerned that the upward trend in milk production is not because of the inherent profitability of the sector but due to farmers trying to compensate for poor milk prices by expanding. And since April 2015, there have not been very many months where the milk price has covered the full costs of milk production. In such a farm-gate-price environment, expanding to mitigate market price shortfalls can only go so far before the wheels fall off the cart.

Following a similar line of thinking, switching to dairy from beef or tillage because the latter are unprofitable is not a reason to move into dairying. As with dairy farming itself, a part of these sector’s problem stem from an inherent lack of production scale. Elsewhere, this small scale is compensated for by focusing on high-value markets whereas in Ireland a lack of suitable routes to markets to the right consumers inhibits the implementation of such a compensatory strategy.

Hence with my over 30 years of experience of farm business planning and investment analysis, rather than write a lengthy discourse about the pros and cons of expansion, I thought I would just list a few of the many questions I would ask someone who was considering investing in dairying.

The available route to market options

  • What is the market focus and product mix of the processors who can purchase your milk?
  • Will the processors be able to add value and, if so, are they structured to pass on the benefit?
  • Are the processors able to pay their suppliers an attractive milk price from sales revenues alone?
  • Can you establish a past track record of the milk price, the seasonality and stability that your route to market options have delivered? Can this be predicted for the next few years?
  • Have you established downside price scenarios and evaluated their cashflow implications?
  • Is the structure of the processor and its milk suppliers competitive within the markets it supplies?
  • Will the processor have to change its product mix to meet market changes in the medium-term?
  • Are you willing to accept the rigours of year-around-milking if that becomes necessary to supply milk into a higher-value, more rewarding, consumer-products-focused supply chain?
  • Can you relatively easily change milk processor if it fails to deliver the milk price that you need?
  • If the routes to market available to you fail to deliver for your business, do you have a Plan B?

The constraints on the farming business

  • Within the context of the land and farming resources available, are you able to create a business of sufficient scale to be competitive within the overall market chosen by your milk processor?
  • Farm land is usually a major constraint. Can it be accessed at realistic and competitive prices?
  • Are you able to operate with a common-sense buffer for grazing and forage and slurry storage?
  • Will labour availability impact upon your chosen business model? Will the business be able to sustain the employment of third parties to enable you to manage your work/lifestyle balance?
  • What is the possibility that constraints will be placed on the business by legislation relating to GHG emissions, nitrate seepage and animal welfare within the next decade?
  • Will you be able to invest to mitigate the consequences of such constraints? If not, will the farm business remain viable in an imposed-change operating format?
  • Have you been able to obtain totally independent, experience and qualified investment advice?
  • Is your family willing to provide the finance to maintain the farm through any bad times ahead?
  • If loan finance is required to fund the investment and the farm, land and, possibly, the house has to be offered as collateral, do you fully appreciate that these will be imperiled by loan default?
  • And the toughest question of all; are you considering dairying because you do not know how else to utilize your land? Should you be considering leaving farming altogether?


Posted in Ireland's dairy sector, Uncategorized | Leave a comment