Many people have predicted the Green Party’s demise in the next general election, but we could also have no greens on supermarket shelves by then.
The Irish fruit and vegetable sector is in peril.
The problems are brought by low grower margins, specialisation and scale, extremely high mechanisation and labour costs, and a much higher proportion of risk should events turn against farming.
But in little old Ireland, with our mild and temperate climate, everything works out in the end, right? Well, no actually, not any more. The weather this year has made it almost impossible to grow and harvest vegetables to order on a week-to-week basis.
A safeguard has evolved within the sector. Fixed contracts, agreed way in advance, provide certainty around price and volume of product on delivery. The problem is that they are designed to protect against a never-ending tide of imports, not against a year of Armageddon weather. They are useless when crops can’t be harvested, about as helpful as an umbrella in a force 10 gale.
In fact, they work against farmers’ interest, as scarcity should deliver a big price spike, but that doesn’t happen if you’ve already sold your product.
If the supermarket price rises due to scarcity, the farmer gets none of that.
The crop insurance system is the basis of farm supports in the US
It may be that the time has come for crop insurance, particularly for high-value, high-cost crops. If the losses associated with wheat, barley, oats or beans not cut are catastrophic for individual farmers, you can multiply that by 10 for carrots, cabbage or broccoli.
This year might be an outlier, the rains of 2023 joining the big snows of 1963, 1982 or 2010, or the big freeze-out of 2009.
We had wet years before- 1977 and 1985 are within living memory, 2007 within recent recall.
However, the nagging feeling is that our weather has become utterly unpredictable, with no discernible pattern at all, other than long periods of the same kind of weather at random times of the year. And that is not conducive to vegetable growing.
The crop insurance system is the basis of farm supports in the US. Downturns in both price and yield are underwritten by government.
Perhaps in Ireland, with price determined by contract, we can focus on the yield part of the equation.
Of course, we could just let the sector wither on the vine, and import our vegetables from Almeria, Spain. Except Almeria is less stable than Ireland.
The massive city of greenhouses was threatened by drought in April and May, with no water for irrigation, immediately followed by floods. God providing in the end, some might say.
Perhaps, but it may be more prudent to regard it as a stark warning of the need to spread the risk.