Have you been to one of the Irish Farmers' Association (IFA) election hustings?

Somewhere in the region of 4,000 people have attended the 18 meetings that took place from Donegal to Macroom, Enniscorthy to Castlebar.

A similar number attended the 22 regional chair hustings in Munster, south Leinster and Connacht. That still leaves over 60,000 IFA members who haven't heard the candidates as they tore around the country over the last month or so.

The good news is there's still a chance to see them being put through their paces. You can even put a question to them.

That chance occurs on Monday night next, when Irish Farmers Journal editor Jack Kennedy will put the issues to Francie Gorman and Martin Stapleton - both the issues that have been raised consistently through the hustings and the issues you put to them on the night or before.

Why bother, I hear you say. Well, if you care about farming, you might want to have a say in who will be the leading voice of farmer representation over the next four years.

There is a choice to be made and it would be better if that was an informed choice.

The two men differ in style and in substance, but it's not my role to suggest who is better equipped for the job. While this is an opinion column, my opinion is that everyone needs to make up their own minds.

Make the effort - they have

One thing cannot be denied - both candidates have put in an almighty shift in a bid to connect with members. One of them will lead the IFA as it tackles farmer incomes, the negotiations around CAP post-2027 and the business end of how we meet our 2030 sectoral target, particularly when arduous land use (LULUCF) targets are added to the equation.

Francie Gorman speaking at the IFA hustings. \ Donal O' Leary

Martin Stapleton speaking at the IFA hustings . \ Donal O' Leary

Is dairy expansion over? Can the tillage and fruit and vegetable sectors cope with increasingly unpredictable and unhelpful weather patterns?

There needs to be a greater understanding among the near-dozen farm organisations

And above all, is there a pathway to a sustainable income for the nation’s 100,000 drystock farmers or are our rapidly-aging sheep and cattle farmers the final generation to do more than hobby farm?

Either Martin Stapleton or Francie Gorman will be the leading face and voice of farmers as we tackle these defining questions. There are four separate arenas they must operate in.

The obvious ones are in Dublin, with Government ministers and Department officials, and in Brussels, with Commissioners, technocrats and MEPs.

Internal conversation

The third arena is in the media, where the IFA president must be a credible and rational advocate for family farmers.

The fourth arena is one that has clearly emerged during the hustings. There is a need to have an internal conversation among farmers. For the next IFA president, that is a two-fold dialogue.

Within the IFA, there needs to be agreement on a progressive and pro-active policy platform. And outside the IFA, there needs to be a greater understanding among the near-dozen farm organisations that now proliferate, so that on the major issues, there is a degree of coherence and clarity.

It's a tall order for whoever gets the most votes from the 940 branches around the country.

They will, of course, be supported by either Pat Murphy or Alice Doyle as the incoming deputy president, the four regional chairs - three of them also newly-elected - the national council, the 17 committees and their chairs, and the staff, who are underrated by those who don't see them at work, but not by those who do.

That said, the next president, like all those before him, will ultimately have to lead from the front. It can be a lonely place, I imagine, and there must be days of intense stress and nights of self doubt.

Whoever wins, we should all wish them well, as indeed we wish the best to the next Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers Association (ICMSA) president - which seems likely to be Denis Drennan - and indeed all who put themselves forward in the service of their fellow farmers.

Late to the party

The hustings were one third through before I got a chance to see the candidates put through their paces.

My latest bout of COVID kept me away from the first week and a half as they worked their way around Munster and seventh debate in Goresbridge was my first opportunity to see Martin Stapleton and Francie Gorman debate the issues.

First of all, full disclosure. I know both men quite well, have regard for both men as farmer representatives and enjoy their company.

Irish farming will be well served by whichever of them emerges from the gruelling campaign as the IFA’s 17th president.

Secondly, a word on the venue. The Ionad Dara hall is a really lovely building, a small but perfectly formed theatre that serves as a hub in a rural community.

Thirdly, the crowd. As ever in these events, it was hard to tell if the travelling armies of the candidates outnumbered the locals.

Some people might ask if a dozen and a half debates in front of a cumulative few thousand people is the best way to select the person who will be the main spokesperson for Ireland’s 130,000 farm families for the next four years.

There is no better way for an election to be conducted, giving the voters a chance to listen to the candidates

There is no better way for an election to be conducted, giving the voters a chance to listen to the candidates and to question them and then to have them cast their vote.

Even the US presidential election begins with small groups of people in Iowa and New Hampshire meeting hopefuls during the party primaries.

We have seen the last three British prime ministers selected by a group of voters not much bigger than the IFA’s membership - Liz Truss gained 80,000 votes among Conservative party members to win the contest to succeed Boris Johnson, who had gained little more.

Rishi Sunak was elected without a vote at all, as the only candidate following Truss’s disastrous brief reign.

Test of stamina

One thing is for sure, the pair of them will be battle-hardened at the end of it all. It’s a test of stamina, a test of the breadth and the depth of knowledge both men have of the range of issues that fill the more than hundred pages of our print edition every week.

The issues have ranged from nitrates, calendar farming, slurry storage, biogas, forestry, suckler and sheep supports, pesticides, rewetting, eco schemes and ACRES, support for beleaguered cereal, potato and vegetable growers.

A host of structural issues also raised their heads, such as how the IFA can better penetrate and lead the national conversation about food production, about getting more access into farming and indeed farmer representation, can be provided for young farmers and women farmers, about how the IFA can better engage with members, and the viability of the parish-based branch structure.

It's a bewildering list, but, in fairness, the two men have an opinion on it all, as indeed do the man and woman contesting the deputy presidency.

If you have an hour to spare next Monday at 7.30pm, stick the debate on the phone, laptop or telly. Head over to www.farmersjournal.ie. It will be worth your while.