I have reached the point where I want to see some action. There is only so much writing one can do and I have done my groundwork. I also have a group of social media friends and their feedback is that my logic is on the mark. It has been a very useful verification process for my ideas [many thanks to all] and provided me with my own personal public consultation.
The response to my writings from the agri-food ‘establishment’ is zero but I have realized that expecting one is wishful; change is not welcome and certainly not change proposed by an outsider. The strategic thinking was done in Food Harvest 2020 and Food Wise 2025 and come hell or high water, that is now set in stone. Under their strategic direction farm incomes have lurched from crisis to crisis, farm sector by farm sector, but that seems to be irrelevant. Farm income as an issue is met with political platitudes and U-turns are, apparently, still not in fashion.
I had originally hoped to work with the existing farming organisations but that is clearly not possible. They are focused on lobbying and the idea that projects need to be created to demonstrate alternative options is an anathema to them. Instead they have perfected the Dickensian approach to farmer representation; bowl in hand asking ‘please, sir, I want some more’.
The taxpayer already provides €1.5 billion in support; but this is little more than money to pay the farmer’s labour. The support is needed because the chosen routes to market fail to deliver a return on farming family labour, management or the assets deployed. It is a sad situation that needs rectifying. But where is the inspirational leadership that will stimulate change?
My own plans are to establish the Irish Family Farming Foundation. The title says it all. In an ideal world, I would prefer to drive change through private-sector investment but I cannot see an appetite for such. It is too much to ask give the country’s small farms and their incomes.
There are well funded agencies that should be providing the technical and marketing support to catalyse change but, alas, they seem to be dedicated to supporting the current routes to market and those that operate them. Thus, it remains about the production of more low-cost raw materials for a few major processing-exporting entities. There is also a blatant disregard for whether this can provide, on a fully-costed basis, sustainable economic returns to the farmer.
Hence, how to develop projects to create new routes to market and the products to travel along them. One is realistic enough to know that this is about planting acorns as the only way to grow mighty oaks. It is about starting small but also ensuring that the thinking has been done to scale volume over time. Ireland is a food exporting nation and its domestic markets can only sustain so much premium product. But it can still provide initial markets and, as I have said elsewhere, we must also deliver nutritious, high-quality food to the Irish people.
€1.5 billion is dedicated to agricultural support but it is a tragedy that amongst so much apparent abundance there are few funds to support new route-to-market initiatives. More so when it is about products that are linked to dedicated farming systems and on-farm or locally processing. And when one does look, one finds an unrealistic growth expectation for an investment; an expectation that follows a belief that food-sector investment is about processing generic ingredients into ‘innovative’ products. There is no recognition that premium food products are often linked to their ‘terroir’ and that they require raw materials specifically produced for them down on the farm. This situation inhibits farm-gate price premiumization and income enhancement.
My own Irish Family Farming Foundation website provides an overview of my project proposals. It can be accessed off my Blog site. Further information is then only an e-mail away. I am now looking for farmers [or others who feel that they can contribute] to create nucleus groups for the projects. In one or two cases, it may even be about forming [maybe without creating a formal entity in the beginning] ‘producer groups’ to take the projects forwards. My experience tells me that it requires a group to show that there is ‘stakeholder commitment’ even if that commitment is only an expression of interest in being involved in an evolving initiative.
With an active group in place we can then go forward to seek funds to develop the project and to fund its investments. As said, these may only be small and have a peripheral impact, but we must start somewhere. And as my feedback tells me, many farmers have had enough of the status quo or its promoted alternative; to borrow to invest, to work harder to produce more, whilst not seeing how such will provide themselves or succeeding generations with a viable livelihood.
Hence, please find the time to look at the ‘Foundations’ website and get in touch with requests to join an informal start-up group and/or ideas about how to modify my project proposals and/or, crucially, how to fund them. I can then start planting the acorns.