JJ Finn’s farm lies in a valley a few miles outside Gort, by the slopes of Derrybrien. For three generations, his family has farmed here. A century of agriculture, of caring for the land and the animals. In the heart of his 170 acres, the erratic Streamstown river runs down the valley, all the way to Thoor Ballylee, where once Yeats peered out at it.
It is a gentle place, and JJ a perfect custodian for that gentleness. In a week when the IFA elected a new president, and Brexit is imminent, the future of farming faces an uncertain time, with small farmers, especially in the west, under attack from both the factories and supermarkets. Beef farmers like JJ are at the cutting edge of the interaction between the producers and the retailers, and are feeling the pinch of low prices.
“We are being abused, financially, emotionally and physically for what we do, especially by the supermarkets,” he says. “The factories are bad enough but the supermarkets are worse. They are making massive mark-ups on something that arrives in on Thursday and is sold before Sunday afternoon. We could have had that animal here for two and a half years and make a loss, after all the work that goes into minding it.”
Sitting around his kitchen table, he shows me the receipts for the sale of beef. €3.50 a kilo for something that costs €4 to produce. Probably even more in the west of Ireland with fragmented farms and holdings split up all over the place.
“What you would want to be getting to make a modest profit is €5 a kilo. In the next year the chances of getting that are slim enough. With Brexit, and Johnson’s majority in Westminster, things might be too bad if he does not have to pander to smaller parties. He’s in a stronger position to get a Brexit and the British consumers are going to have to get food from Ireland.
“We have to sell in there. There is demand for the Irish beef, they see the quality, they know of the green grass and the hedgerows and the high standards. It costs a lot to have high standards. In Brazil and Argentina, people are paid a dollar a day and the Amazon rainforest gets burned up, and I don’t think that’s what people want to be supporting either.”
JJ has been farming for 35 years now, the third generation of his family to farm the land.
A century ago, his grandfather used to drive cattle from Kilrush to Ballinasloe and here was a staging post with its river and its fine grass, so he married in here, and they have been there ever since.
And this is by far the worst time in terms of prices and yield, that he has seen.
Asking myself questions
“It is unrealistic that we can stay at this too long, producing under the costs of production. Plus with the bad summers and the late springs. There is a lot more rain. Add this to the flooding that South Galway continues to suffer.
“I had an emergency last August — the river goes through the farm, so I have to watch livestock when it is in flood because it spills out onto the fields and livestock.
“I was in Galway at the Streets of Galway race and I got the call to come back and rescue 60 cattle and 100 lambs from the river. I was up to my thighs in water walking across a field and I asked myself ‘am I producing beef and making a loss on it at €3.50 and risking my life getting drowned. And I said, this has to stop, this has to change.
“There was flooding in 1951 and then the next one in 1995. But the frequency now is a lot more intense. Part of that is the drainage up the mountain. They drained for forestry and it is shuttling the water down way too fast. There is a moss called sphagnum moss, which acts as a soil conditioner as it increases the soil’s capacity to hold water if it is growing well, but this has almost disappeared.
“This might change after the recent report on the flooding in South Galway. They can have retention ponds to stop the water coming straight down and grow the moss again. It will take time but it will be done and done right.
“My grandfather came here in 1901, and the next generation is on the ground here. My children are all going to have college education and that will be paid for and that will be done. One of them might go farming, but not on a full-time basis, but it might get easier because each generation will improve the situation, through technology.
“There are great things like drones for herding and spreading fertiliser. Robots and technology will change all that but they will have to make a bit of money of it as well. It is not a hobby.”
More profit on a packet of crisps than beef
“I would hope with Brexit being sorted and with the Chinese market coming on board that it might go up to €5 a kilo, so that we would make a euro profit. Now that is modest enough, because if you eat 100g of meat and a kilo of meat will do 10 dinners. If every dinner is at €5 a kilo, I would only make 10 cents profit. Which is terrible. There is more being made on a packet of crisps than there is on that.”
When I asked him if it is disheartening for young farmers who realise they could make more money working on a night shift in a factory in the city that they could in in farming, JJ feels that this the low prices and low prospects are definitely putting off potential young farmers.
“I have a young fella who would go farming if it was better paid, but he is going to go to college instead. Now, if we were dairy farming, it would be a different case, but we were wiped out of that in 1978 with TB and brucellosis, and then the quota system came in, so we can’t do that.”
Is his grá for farming what it once was?
“I enjoy farming but it is waning a small bit. The likes of getting up at night at springtime is hard. Once you’d get back to sleep instantly, but now it takes a while and that’s not good for you in the long run. You don’t want farms collapsing. There would be huge impact around the place. This is a full-time farm but with only part-time pay.”
JJ feels that the perception of farmers as impacting on climate change is not the full picture.
“You only hear the bad things. But you don’t hear that grass reduces carbon disorientate, as do hedgerows and bogs. Farmers are controlling the environment of all of Ireland. I have 25 acres of forestry here and that too will benefit the environment.
“The financial and physical risk of setting up a farm is huge. Everyone needs investment. The Government need to follow up that investment. There are lot of farmers out there who are quite unhappy. This is going into PLCs and supermarkets. They are making a huge amount of money. There needs to be an audit of where all this is going.”
“In 1980, people spent 28 per cent of their income on food. Today, it is nine percent. We are being squashed down on our prices. The nutritional value of things like vegetables has gone down as well, because they are all pumped out, but beef has the same nutritional value, so even if you support farmers with grants and EU Aid, you are still getting cheaper food than you did 40 years ago. And the farmers are feeling the pinch of that.
“It is a shocking statistic. Because the supermarkets squeeze it out to the last bit. There is more money to spend on things now than there used to be, like connectivity of mobile phones, exercise, holidays, BMWs.
The mental cost
And then there is the mental cost of such a solitary job.
“My wife works in Boston Scientific and she works with thousands of people. I am here, and apart from my mother who lives here, there are days when I would not see anyone at all. And what I will be at today, I don’t know when I will be paid for it. If a calf is born today, 30 months time is very far away. If my wife works today, she is paid next week, and for farmers like myself, that is the reality of the working day and the working life.
For many farmers, this is disheartening because they are not earning what they used to. Or do not get get the boost that a weekly or monthly pay-packet can bring.
Did he ever consider giving it all up?
“There are days when you think that. But there is a massive responsibility to maintain the farm and to make it work. For many farmers, they have relatives living on the farm, parents, uncles. If you did sell it, sometime after selling it, you would feel kind of sorry about it. If I was a unionised job, there would be four people here doing the same amount of work.
“I would work 100 hours a week mid February to mid-April, and this time of the year is 30 hours a week. I should be making a good income out of that and have money to invest, but it’s not there. And the Government and the IFA are not doing a much as they could.
“It’s been hard work. I took over the farm and land and doubled the numbers, fencing and sheds, and paid it back. There were years you could do this but now it’s not possible. I make less than the payments that come into the farm,” he said, echoing the sad reality of life for many farmers in the region.
He is a contented farmer, but like many more, he is just looking for a fair price for what he produces. One of tens of thousands who produce what we eat.
And with that, he was back to his day on the farm, out for another day working the land, caring for the animals, his beloved collie Cisco at his side.
“He’s great company, he might be the only one I get to talk to all day,” he laughs.