Concerns with organic markets, Donegal representation and farm organisation unity were big themes at Monday’s Irish Farmers' Association (IFA) presidential and vice-presidential debate in Donegal.
IFA presidential hopefuls Martin Stapleton and Francie Gorman faced Donegal farmers at the Clanree Hotel and there were lively exchanges on the night from organic farmers and the candidates about concerns surrounding organic markets.
Both candidates expressed concerns that the influx of farms into organics would lead to a market collapse in two years' time, leaving the farmers no better off for converting.
Stapleton posed the question - "While the Government has put in place €250m for organics, how much of that will be extra income when the fall in prices for organic produce comes in two years' time?"
However, he reiterated that farmers should have the freedom to be able to choose what sector they are involved in and that with the scheme, organics is a good financial option for some farmers.
Gorman expressed his fear that if the support scheme is dropped, the market may not be in a position to make organic farming economical for farmers.
However, local organic tillage farmer Donald Louge expressed dissatisfaction with the candidates' response, stating that they should be advocating for stronger market prices and development instead of just stating concerns.
Farm organisation unity
The candidates were told that the IFA had made mistakes in the past, particularly in relation to convergence, which resulted in many farmers in Donegal seeing losses to their direct payments.
They were also told that they got it wrong with splitting from the hill farmers, who went on to form the Irish Natura and Hill Farmers' Association and were asked if they would mend the rift with the organisation.
Gorman pointed out that the main issue with hill farmers was their feeling of not being heard regarding the commonage framework plans. He said that many organisations formed in the last 10 to 15 years arose because the IFA hadn't been willing to listen to the concerns raised by these farmers.
Whether it's hill farmers, grain growers or the 2019 beef factory demonstrations, the problem was that "we weren’t listening to members and their concerns".
He said on the topic of unity that organisations should come together to have a united voice on the big issues facing agriculture and that he would be open to being part of that.
When asked about a complaint received from Donegal IFA members regarding a staff member, Stapleton clarified that the complaint, which was submitted to the rules committee, had been forwarded to the HR department. To the best of his knowledge, they are still in the process of addressing that complaint, he said.
However, the "top brass" of the IFA were accused of losing touch with on-the-ground staff in Donegal, especially the county officers.
Gorman acknowledged the disconnect, particularly with farmers from the west of Ireland, and stated that the way to address it is by actively listening to people and striving to meet their needs.
Stapleton remarked that he has never seen an IFA where conflicts didn't exist in counties and he acknowledged that conflict exists in Donegal and Kerry.
He emphasised that when disagreements arise, the only way to resolve them is through democracy and with respect.
The isolation of Donegal was highlighted as a concern during the event, particularly regarding the lack of visits to the county by the current deputy president.
The deputy presidential candidates, Alice Doyle and Pat Murphy, both pledged to make an effort to visit Donegal and be more active on the ground.
The presidential candidates were informed that IFA members in Donegal had sought help from those in Dublin during the challenging times the organisation faced in the county, but did not receive any help.
In response, both candidates stated that the county had been well represented by its own county members.