How the IFA has coped with COVID-19?

We had to change our complete way of working in March. We got every elected member of the IFA from a branch on to WhatsApp groups, so at least we were able to communicate with all our elected officers.

As our IT system developed, we were able to have our (national) council meetings online, and we’ve had some robust and excellent debates on council on Teams.

When there was a break in the summer, we met people in sheds and in fields. A lot of my work centres on meetings with the minister, going to Brussels. I was elected first vice-president of COPA and that campaign had to be conducted over a phone.

This has been a huge learning curve; the hybrid system is going to be the way of the future. I might end up at a county executive and have to get to Dublin for a 6am flight. Now I can do two executives remotely in the same night. Within the national officers of IFA, if something comes up that we need to discuss, we can convene a meeting in an hour or two.

On the trading protocols on the island of Ireland

I was very concerned about the Northern Ireland Protocol when the British government started meddling with the Internal Markets Bill. We got clarity, that was good news.

We all know the volume of trade between southern Ireland and Northern Ireland – 40% of the milk in the north processed in the south, half a million lambs a year coming down. Eight thousand pigs a week are travelling north and there has been an exceptional trade for live cattle going north this year – an essential trade.

On beef and the PGI

We have a grass-fed standard that does include young bulls. That was because of an IFA campaign. There was an application for a PGI, and again, the young bulls were going to be excluded from that, and another [IFA] campaign around that.

We [Ireland] have an application gone to Brussels for steers, heifers and cull cows, but alongside that there is an application for young bulls, provided they come up to the criteria, so that is an improvement.

For the first time ever, we’re establishing a brand to market suckler beef, and what’s very important, the steering group will be majority-led farmers, so for the first time in years, farmers will have a say in their own destiny, about establishing a brand, making a connection with the retailers

I think we have an excellent story to tell, and I’m going to stay centre-stage in telling that story.

On dairy expansion

Dairy farmers had the shackles on them for years, there’s still more potential [for expansion] there. The average stocking rate for the country is still less than 90kg [organic N/ha]. Not every hectare in the country is suitable for dairy farming.

A lot of work is being done, with the MACC curve, with protected urea. Time is needed here to allow those measures to work through the system. I think we’ll see an improvement in the environment. Dairy farmers, like all farmers, are very cognisant we are in a time of change. There is a target to get to carbon neutral by 2050, and farmers will work toward that, but there is still scope in the sector.

On rewetting of peatlands

There needs to be an option there for farmers.

If a farmer wants the option of rewetting, maybe it’ll become a carbon sink, and carbon is becoming a very valuable commodity.

It can’t be mandatory. Whatever happens, there needs to be choice for farmers.

We will be designing schemes in the new year. Flexibility is needed – if a farmer wants to do something like that, then we will be supporting them.

On forestry

The state of the forestry in Ireland is disgraceful. Initially we were told there were 2,000 licences in the system. We now understand there’s up to 5,000 [licence] applications in the system.

The 2014 legislation says that a licence should be no more than four months in the system – there’s people waiting four years. The industry is grinding to a halt.

If a crop fails, and it’s not the fault of the farmer, I’m very clear that farmer has to be compensated and helped to reinstate or do something else with that ground.

On CAP payments and convergence

My own personal view is whoever is doing the work needs to get the money.

There’s ongoing policy as the details become available from Brussels. We don’t know yet if the eco-schemes [in the next CAP] will be 20% or 25%.

The council of ministers are at 20% – we will be taking that position obviously – and you have the Commission wanting 30%.

As the year goes along, we will be developing a clear policy. We are working on it already.

On tillage

I have great concerns for the tillage sector. There are measures I would look at to build that sector. We need a balance in Irish agriculture. The harvest produced 1.8m tonnes of grain. We need 6-7m tonnes of grain here in this country.

There’s huge potential but we need to get the climate right. There’s no use having every farm in the country producing milk if we are importing straw.

On sheep

There are areas in our country conducive to lower-stocked farms and ideal for sheep; they need to be protected. We have a campaign to get the ewe payment up to €30.

On the TB campaign and burning Department letters

We had no choice at the time.

We are in a year of COVID-19, we are responsible, we’re not going to bring groups of people together. We had to demonstrate that categorising farmers and giving that information out to other farmers was wrong.

There has been progress here, we achieved what we looked for in terms of bilaterals in the TB forum.

On the IFA finances and staffing

It’s public knowledge that we still have €11m in reserves, a healthy balance sheet. I did say in my campaign that we needed change in the association.

We lost a lot of good people this year, but in any business you need new blood coming into the system. I’m delighted that this process is completed in my first year in office.

A number of staff have taken on additional responsibilities. I think we’re well set for the future. We have 71,000 members, we have a serious presence in Brussels and we’re well placed to represent farmers.