Can We Still Save Irish Farming?

Andrew Hamilton

[First published by The Clare People, March 5 2019]

There’s a day coming when things will have gone too far to save. A dark day, after which no amount of policy shifts, financial supports or hand-wringing will be enough to save Irish farming. The scary truth is that in Clare, that day may already have come and gone.
Farmers have been the life blood of this island literally forever. When the ice-sheets began to retreat more than 10,000 years ago, the brave pioneers who followed in their wake and became the first inhabitants of the land, were farmers.
Since then, farmers have shaped every aspect of life on this island – more than the Celts, more than the British, more even than the Catholic Church. For the majority of human history in Ireland, pretty much everyone was a farmer and pretty much everywhere was a farm. But all of that is about to change.
If you are not a farmer, and chances are that you’re not, it’s very easy to lean into the old farm stereotypes. Farmers are always complaining about somethings. Sure, they’re rolling in all that EU money. Am I right?
Like most stereotypes, there is a kernel of truth buried within this view. For decades, farm organisations have always been complaining about something. Of course, for decades, there has always been something to complain about and the problem, especially if you are a small farmers in the West of Ireland, is that these complains are almost never listened to.
Farmers do receive support from the EU, absolutely they do. Of course, that support allows them to sell food for less than it costs to make it. Governments have been supporting food production since the Romans started importing Sicilian grain 2,000 years ago. So yes, farmers receive supports, but in return consumers get a stable supply of high quality food at vastly reduced prices.
The proof of the farm pudding is in the eating. The average age of a Clare farmer is now thought to be somewhere in the mid-60s. That is an incredible statistic. Frightening.
There is a generation of farmers, possibly the last generation of Clare farmers, who are about to retire and no one is there to take their place. No one has been there for the past 30 years and no one is coming now.
There are pensioners all over the county pushing their bodies to the limits to keep cattle fed and fields tended because they cannot bare to let the land go idle.
This is not as simple as an industry becoming obsolete. It’s not just a way of life being lost, something old being moved aside for something new, generations of shared cultural memory being allowed to perish – it is much more fundamental than all of that.
Anyone who grew up on a farm knows the joy of farming. It’s about birth and regeneration, growth and progress, a connection with nature, with the planet and the community.
It’s a fundamental part of the human condition and should be an attractive and fulfilling career option for anyone. But much like the Irish nurses working in Australia, if there was any future in farming, the young people would be there.
Economics dictate and governments follow. It’s not the way it should be but it is the way it is. If you ever needed evidence that the powered classes are interested in running an economy and not a society, this is it.
Like it or not, Brexit is coming. It may be the final straw for thousands of Clare farmers, it may not. What is clear is that farming as we know it, as it has existed for hundreds of years, cannot survive unless the political and societal will is there to make it work.
At the moment, sadly, it seems that it is simply not there.

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