Jump to content

Damien O'Reilly, EU Affairs & Communication Manager

As I stop to catch breath after the fastest year in my life in new surroundings, I am happy to look back on 2023 with a great degree of satisfaction. Brussels is buzzing. And what has pleased me most has been hosting visiting farmers from Ireland.

In 2023, the ICOS board, Drinagh and Barryroe Co-ops have visited Brussels to find out more about how the EU works. They have met with Commissioner Mairead McGuinness, Irish MEPs and other officials working in the agri bubble here in Brussels. It is my impression that they all went home with a completely new understanding of the various roles of the EU institutions. Those visits have also included field trips to farms where farmers have been able to compare notes with their Belgian counterparts.

Belgium is divided in two, Flanders and Wallonia. Members of the boards of Barryroe and Drinagh visited farms in Wallonia in October. There are 2.544 dairy farms in the region of which 338 are organic. But the number of farms has more than halved since 1990. And succession planning, just like in Ireland, is a huge challenge with 68% of farmers over the age of 50. The average herd size is 82 cows on 72 hectares. Cows are out grazing during the day but housed at night. Milk yield is also much greater than in Irish herds.

The Irish visitors also discovered that their Belgian counterparts are concerned about the image of farming among the public. But while farmers think that they are being scapegoated for the climate crises, just like in Ireland, this is not borne out in surveys on consumer attitudes towards farmers. We were told that over 70% of Walloon consumers think it is necessary to preserve local dairy farming while 2/3 have a positive image of dairy farming in general.

Meanwhile succession planning and the challenges facing young farmers was the theme of a conference organised by COGECA (the umbrella body for co-ops) held in Tarragona in Spain last month. ICOS President Edward Carr and CEO TJ Flanagan were among the 500 delegates in attendance.

Opening the event, Cogeca Vice-President Christian Høegh-Andersen, noted, “In the face of the daunting challenge of generational renewal we must acknowledge that the future of European agriculture is intertwined with the future of our young farmers. By embracing our cooperatives and harnessing their potential, we can secure generational renewal and ensure a sustainable future for agriculture.”

In his closing remarks, Cogeca President Ramón Armengol expressed his gratitude and optimism for the future of European agriculture, stating, “The future of European agriculture is intricately intertwined with the future of our young farmers.” He highlighted the importance of co-operatives already supporting young farmers, emphasising the need to further empower them as future leaders of agriculture.

The challenges facing Irish farmers is mirrored across Europe. It may not come as any comfort to Irish farmers to realise this but succession planning and protecting the image of farming is something that is top of the agenda across all farm and co-operative organisations representing Europe’s 22 million farmers and 22,000 agri co-ops. 2024 promises to be another challenging year for all and I look forward to welcoming more Irish farmers to Brussels.

By Damien O’Reilly

Letter from Brussels published in the Irish Farmers Monthly

Tags: Damien O'Reilly, Letter from...