AFTER a hiatus, thanks to Covid, the Ploughing Championships are back with a bang this week.
As well as allowing the farming community – and other communities touched by the same sector – to have a chance to relax, network, compete and observe what is happening in the industry, it also helps to shine a very positive light on all those involved.
The media loves the chance to spend a few days out of the capital and there is almost wall-to-wall coverage on our national broadcaster of the event.
It could be argued that this is one of the most important years for the event, given the current spotlight that has been shone on agriculture in the context of the climate change debate.
And it was all the more obvious this week when the leaders of the two main farming groups were interviewed on RTÉ on the first day of the Championships.
While the conversation started off with the current cost-of-living crisis and its impact on our farming families and businesses, it quickly turned back to the climate emergency and the sector’s role in addressing it.
But there was a tangible sense of surprise when ICMSA president Pat McCormack uttered the phrase ‘villains of the nation’ when referring to how he felt farmers were currently being perceived.
Mr McCormack said that was the ‘angle’ that was coming across very strongly in the last six months and that was also the feeling coming back from his area representatives, as he mentioned West Cork, Galway, Louth and Longford, highlighting just how widespread that perception is throughout the entire country.
He continued to say that it appeared farmers were being blamed for being ‘100% of the problem’. They are not the problem, they are part of the solution, he said, repeating a line that farming representatives have been clinging to of late, to redirect focus off the negative aspects of the debate.
Farmers are justifiably annoyed by how they are being painted in the climate crisis. Hardly a day goes by without the size of the national herd or agricultural emissions being brought into any conversation about fixing the environment.
There seems to be very little by way of a balanced debate. Equally blame-worthy is the transport sector – and where has all the criticism of the major data centres and their emissions gone of late?
Furthermore, while these sectors and other ‘villains’ of the piece, like aviation and retail, are scrambling to get on board with their sustainability projects, what many outside of agriculture fail to recognise – or at least acknowledge – is that, as guardians of our environment, farmers have been closer to the issue for decades.
Working at the coalface of both nature and climate, they have seen the crisis coming for a very long time. But, far from burying their heads in the sand, they have been actively working to mitigate the effects of their production methods.
Sustainability is not a new word for the farming sector – they have been embracing new ways of doing old chores for many, many years.
Soil and grass analysis, animal husbandry, biodiversity, reducing energy consumption, increasing yields while reducing the impact on animal stress and the immediate environment are all common practices on any farm for many years.
There has been a lot of condescending comment in the national media of late about getting agriculture to change its ways as the planet continues to falter. But agriculture has been steadily changing its ways for a long time now, although the process might need a little more urgency these days, for sure.
The frustration of the sector was evident in the comments this week by Pat McCormack and, to a lesser extent, by his IFA colleague Tim Cullinan. Both men were at pains to point out that all their members are striving to meet the ‘massive challenge’ as Tim said, of the 25% emissions target. But they are more than willing to give it a real go. And what’s more, they are not afraid to ask for help in getting there.
Their message has been poorly communicated and only now is it beginning to get through. This week they had a national stage. They needed to take every opportunity to have their voices heard. With a very tough winter in store due to high energy, feed and fertiliser costs on the horizon, there’s no time like the present to start correcting some of the mixed messaging. We need everyone on board, pulling together, to get radical change across the line.