2016 has been a tumultuous year for Irish farming
If you were one of the 283,000 people who made the Ploughing pilgrimage this year, there’s a pretty good chance you were stomping around Screggan with a blue plastic Stetson on your head. Those cowboy hats may have provided quirky cover from the odd shower, but for many of the farmers in attendance they carried the emblem of the enemy - the Aldi logo.
You have to hand it to the German retail giant. They fully understand that plastic Stetsons are one of the few things Irish crowds simply can’t turn down.
But what’s so inflammatory about headgear from supermarkets? “What you see from the likes of the supermarkets here is a PR stunt”, answered Irish Cattle and Sheepfarmers Association President Eddie Punch. He said Irish farmers were being “crucified” by the supermarkets. “The best PR stunt they could do,” he said, “is to have the decency to pay the farmers a reasonable price for their product”.
At the risk of sounding a bit like the hipster who goes to Body & Soul festival and turns up at Electric Picnic moaning that “it’s all gone too commercial”, this has been a very difficult year for Irish farming.
The Brexit vote has been a seismic shock to the very core of the agricultural sector. We’ve already seen at least one business hit the wall, with the loss of 60 jobs, at Tipperary Mushrooms and many more besides are coming under serious pressure from sterling fluctuations.
That feeds in to the issue with supermarkets. Incomes are under threat. Both Lidl and Aldi have been targeted by the Irish Farmers Association for protests over the past year or so, for selling vegetables as cheaply as 29 cents. Both of the shops say their pricing doesn’t impact on the price they pay to farms, and they both have many suppliers who were happy to talk about their experience in dealing with the supermarkets.
However, there is no disputing that the lower prices dip, the market gets involved in a race to the bottom. We’re all complicit in fuelling it. We love a bargain. I shop at Aldi and Lidl and there’s every chance you do too, but we should be aware of the impact this is having on the people that have aided put a hell of a lot of investment into the quality of their produce over the past few years which has seen our economy reap a good harvest over the past couple of years. They are being hit hard at home though, and that’s something that’s going to need to be looked at.
“Not to be sitting on the moaning box,” says dairy farmer Imelda Kinsella, “but we’re always the lowest paid. We always take the income cuts. We have to deal with the volatility from year to year and the supermarkets and the processors are cleaning up.”
The fact that some 6% of Ireland’s population passed through the gates at Screggan is incredible. It’s a cultural behemoth and a tribute to the efforts of the indefatigable Anna May McHugh and her small team, who have built a festival that outshines any across Europe for footfall and sheer scale.
However, as it's grown, the Ploughing has become more than just a celebration of Irish rural life and an annual gathering for the country’s farmers. The corporations have come knocking at the door. You have the world’s leading car-makers, the media, all sorts of service providers and manufacturers, the banks and, now, the supermarkets.
And against that back-drop of concerns about prices and the impact on the livelihoods of Ireland’s farming families, you can see why the “fancy tents” described by Eddie Punch of the ICSA, as well as the rugby demonstrations from Paul O’Connell, the brown-bread competitions and the radio broadcasts held at the tents are an issue for farmers
Never mind the brown bread, the branding most definitely left a bad taste in the mouth for many farmers and we haven’t heard the last of this one. Not by a long way.