Irish perspective

By Stephen Robb, Irish Farmers Journal

Having recently spent some time working with the Rosenbohm family on the gently roaming fields of Nodaway County, it has become apparent the stark differences between crop farming in the US and here in Ireland.

Perhaps by way of introduction I’ll explain a little about myself. I’m a third generation part-time farmer from Co. Donegal, the northernmost county of Ireland. We grow a variety of small grains including winter and spring barley, winter wheat, spring oats and spring oil seed rape for cannola, primary for the feed market. Irish cereal farming is a relatively small player in terms of size, comprising 14,000 farmers across 600,000 acres and accounting for less than one percent of total EU production. But let me be the first to say that our contribution to the wider agricultural economy is significant.

Irish farming is in a period of major change. The removal of the EU milk quotas in 2015 has released the shackles of the Irish dairy sector and paved the way for herd expansion. This, coupled with an insatiable demand for milk, improved breeding and genetics and enhanced grassland management, has given the dairy sector the winning formula to tower above all others. The result is an unprecedented expansion of the sector, high numbers of young new entrants and an exodus from other farming enterprises.

In stark contrast, the Irish cereal sector faces many challenges such as Ireland’s infamous wet climate, an ever-increasing list of key farming pesticides to be withdrawn by the EU, low profitability and intense competition for land rental. So, it’s safe to say we have many hurdles to overcome in the future. The nation is just beginning to realize the key strategic importance of a healthy cereal sector.

For example, sheep, beef and dairy cows are housed indoors for anywhere between two to six months of the year; cereal straw forms a key ingredient for bedding these animals. A nationwide shortage of straw this year has sent straw prices through the roof with any viable alternatives failing to appear. Furthermore, Ireland’s booming drinks industry continually struggles to source sufficient quantities of locally-produced grains.

However, where there are challenges, there are opportunities. For years, Europe’s stern non-GMO stance has been seen as a constraint on the cereal sector. In the past, I would have agreed with this. But in light of the ever-growing anti-GMO movement, this stance has turned into a key competitive advantage of ours when going head-to-head with global grain juggernauts like the US.

From my experiences in the US, GMO crops certainly give their farmers a competitive edge. So, if we’re not permitted to adopt this technology, is it wrong that Irish farmers use the protectionism of the EU to our advantage? In this era of extreme challenges, I think most farmers reading this will agree that it is not.

While the future is by no means an easy road, farmer ingenuity will prevail. For this reason, the future of the Irish cereals sector will continue to play an important role in the story of Irish agriculture.

Stephen Robb comes from a cereal farm in Northwest Ireland and recently spent time working in Missouri. He will be writing about his experiences of farming in Ireland.