Travel the road with our small farmers

Outdoor Living

NEW THINKING NEEDED Some positive developments need to happen soon before rural communities are decimated and a way of life is gone forever.

Nature and rewilding
Pat Fahy

Biodiversity Conference, Dublin Castle, February 21, 2019. Everyone assembled keen to hear the thoughts of President Michael D Higgins.
I was wondering how he would square the impending biodiversity crisis with the everyday needs of the many. Expecting a theme relating only to extra finance incentives, instead we received a visionary call to walk a mile in the shoes of the small farmer at the heart of many communities, to take the long winding country road with them and in turn to understand each other, to the mutual benefit of both farmer and biodiversity.
He criticised existing schemes, such as GLAS, for box ticking and lack of effectiveness, whilst also adding (in case we got too comfy in our seats) a call to all assembled to do more, to be more proactive in working with farmers, to find ways to understand each other, to share the vision that there’s a better way to everyone’s benefit. “There’s a huge difference when a farmer can say that they are doing this because they believe it is the right thing to do,” he said.
Later I wondered, what would Michael D say if instead he were addressing a gathering of farmers? Later, I read his address at last year’s Ploughing Championships in Carlow. You could tell this man was no stranger to farm life and tougher times.
“No one is too far from the land,” he is often heard to say. He and his younger brother, John, were sent away when they were only four and five to be raised by their aunt and uncle on their farm in the townland of Ballycar, Co Clare. Not an unusual occurrence at the time.
Milking cows, rearing calves and back-breaking work all seemed normal, his brother later recalled; every neighbour in the locality living the same way of life. Last year, 297,000 people attended the Ploughing Championships. The idea feels like something from another world right now in these times of Covid lockdown. The beef crisis was at its height, and the President’s concern that a fair price be given to the Irish Beef Farmer was made clear. “All of our wishes go out to those who want to see a future for the family farm,” he said.  When you learn that the average income of a suckler beef farmer in 2018 was only €8,350 – €4 per hour for a 40-hour week – it’s clear some positive developments need to happen soon before rural communities are decimated and a way of life is gone forever.
Maybe something like the national Farming for Nature initiative could supplement a farmer’s income? Its reason for being, after all, is to improve things for both farmer and biodiversity. We need results-based agri-environment schemes based on local knowledge in partnership with farmers who know the landscape – as opposed to the ‘top down’ distant approach, like the often-criticised GLAS scheme, which penalises farmers for existing native woodland, scrub or ponds, only making payments if they are cleared.
The Burrenbeo Trust Project in contrast has been a beacon of light in this regard and its success in gaining the trust and partnership of local farmers has inspired numerous ‘High Nature Value Farms’ dotted throughout the country.
It was founded by Dr Brendan Dunford. In 1998, he started researching the link between the Burren’s unique karst limestone landscape and its land management. Over time he gained the trust of local farmers, who had become sceptical of advisors who didn’t understand the area. “First and foremost, a farm is a business enterprise above all else,” he writes. “They listen, we learn; we listen, they learn.” He emphasises the importance of listening – really listening – to engender trust, of not talking like ‘an expert’, of not stating why a farmer does something but asking why. “There’s usually a valid reason, and working together, solutions can be found.” Wise words.
Farmers in the Burren can now earn up to €10,000 a year helping their community, the landscape and the biodiversity of which they are proud. Hopefully in time, all farmers can avail of this type of extra income if they choose.
We need to avert the biodiversity crisis and the climate crisis. Systems are creaking across the board on the only planet we’ve got. Do we really need to wait until it’s broken before we do something. Doesn’t that sound eerily familiar in these peculiar Covid times?
They say not all heroes wear capes. Maybe some of them wear wellingtons. We all need each other if we’re going to keep on walking down that winding country road Michael D spoke about, with its many twists and turns, towards a better future for everyone – most of all for those still in little boots.

Pat Fahy is Biodiversity Officer with Westport Tidy Towns.