King and Queen competitions, basketball, Mr Personality, Capers, Young Farmer competitions – the Macra na Feirme press releases frequently hit the Celt’s email, and paints a picture of an inexhaustible outlet for socialising. Amongst this litany of leisure times was one release announcing that the current chairman THOMAS DUFFY was running for the Macra presidency. Why does he want to be the chief party-organiser? We’ve got it all wrong says the Virginia farmer.
“The nature of Macra over the years has changed, there’s no denying it,” admits Thomas Duffy as he sups a cup of tea at the kitchen table in the family’s Edenburt farm. A few strides east and we’d be in Co Meath. The 27 year old’s in a dairy partnership with his father Ned and mother Kathleen, a couple known to many for their voluntary work with the Virginia Show.
“I mean when it was originally established it was primarily, and almost solely, focused on young farmers’ education and their representation in rural Ireland. Over the years we’ve added things on, I don’t think we’ve lost anything.”
He accepts that the most visible side of Macra’s activities is the social side.
“It’s the one that generates the photos, it’s the one that a lot of our members enjoy. A lot of the things that we do, we don’t get credit for, and a lot of the stuff we do, you won’t see photos from,” says Thomas who is currently chairman, having spent two years as Cavan National Council Representative on National Executive.
Among Macra’s “most successful endeavours” is having a Land Mobility Service established, which he notes is currently being replicated in Northern Ireland, and Macra have been told by Commissioner Phil Hogan that there’s moves to have it replicated EU-wide. Another example is their work alongside their EU partners CEJA, which Thomas claims helped to achieve a 25% top up.
“We lobbied hard for that – we fought hard for that with our European counterparts, and we got that. Anyone else who wants to claim that they are responsible for that - no, we fought for that. We also fought for things like the top-up on the grant.”
According to the Lobbying Register Macra are the third most active lobbying group on agriculture and rural youth issues.
“What’s going on behind the scenes is massive, and when you go to places like the UK who don’t have that level of youth lobbying, you see the difference in their national programmes, in their funding, in everything.”
Possibly mindful of the Celt’s sniffy question, Thomas warns against being flippant about the socialising dimension of Macra.
“The purpose of Macra is not the basketball and the public speaking competitions and the Capers – the purpose of Macra is the progression of our young people. The basketball is incredibly important for somebody who’s maybe not seen someone from one end of the week to the next because they are on a farm constantly, and a lot of our members who are participating in those competitions are isolated. But also the level of community you find in Macra through those community events is like nothing else you can find in rural Ireland anymore – and certainly nothing like that in urban Ireland, outside of perhaps the GAA and the really successful pillar bodies.”
He looks no further than himself in terms of personal development.
“Macra made me what I am,” he says explaining the confidence he’s gained from public speaking. In fact, the skills he’s gained from Macra “in no small part” has given him the drive and skillset to run for the presidency.
“There’s a reason that a lot of the significant people in all of the other farm organisations came up through Macra – because they got the training in doing that.
We are standing up in front of an audience and discussing and debating issues and lobbying over in the EU when we are 25. No other organisation can do that, can train you like that.”
Thomas is the first name on the ballot, but he would be “very surprised” if more didn’t follow in the coming weeks ahead of the vote – in the midst of calving season – in early April. The two year term would run from May 2019 to May 2021. This is Macra’s 75th anniversary, and in that time Ulster presidents have been few and far between. Thomas would be the first Cavan president. Maybe geography isn’t as much of a factor as his dairy background? Would Macra be better served with a president in the beef sector since that’s where the crisis lies in agriculture at present?
“What annoys me at the moment is the way a certain cohort are trying to turn beef and dairy against each other, and saying it’s the dairy farmers’ fault – and I can understand why that’s happening because there’s guys, even in public turning around saying we don’t care about the beef industry – the attitude is dairy, dairy, dairy. Both of those groups are completely missing the main point: fundamentally neither sector can survive without the other.”
Thomas flags those facing the greatest crisis as suckler farmers and says they need to ensure that “they’re not seen as just the dumping ground for dairy bull calves”. He notes this is an “incredibly short-sighted” view held by some dairy farmers.
Secondly he says, “The quality that’s being produced by some of the dairy farms is questionable, and that’s driving a problem for the beef farms.”
He reasons: “We need dairy farmers to ensure that they are producing a good quality product, because if they’re not producing a good quality of product, and they’re sacrificing the guy next in line, and the guy next in the line disappears, we’re the ones who will suffer from that. The beef industry will continue...”
“The idea that there’s a massive cohort of people who are dumping low quality calves into the factories and that’s depressing prices suits the narratives of others.”
He believes Macra members have generally responded well to his “blunt” persona, which compliments his drive to achieve positive change.
“If I have an idea I will say ‘This is my idea’. It might be out there, it might not work, but why not give it a try and as a youth organisation in the world that we’re in – we need to be giving lots of things a try.”
THOMAS ON FORESTRY
The Macra policy Thomas has taken the lead role in shaping is forestry.
“Quite frankly Macra was the first voice on this issue and maybe we didn’t make enough noise about it,” said Thomas, who brought it to the organisation’s Ag Affairs committee on foot of young farmers raising concerns about competition for land.
He insists young farmers are being outbid for land by those enticed into planting by excessive grants.
“We’re very often told it’s not an issue - they are only taking the so-called ‘marginal land’, which is a term I absolutely hate... Trying to define land by how so-called marginal it is depends on the practices and the farmer that’s involved with it.”
He insists the level of grant aid was distorting the market and having the worst impact on young farmers.
“When we did the figures there was no way a young farmer could compete, and if what we’re being told - that they we’re only looking for the lower productivity, the so-called marginal land - then this level of grant aid couldn’t be justified.”
He contends that the level of rent land could achieve should be reflected in the level of grant aid available.
“And it’s not, it’s about three or four times that, easily,” he says, his frustration shining through.
He says it’s for young farmers who rely on less expensive land to get started.
“If they are not inheriting land or their holding is not large enough to make an economic return, they need to be able to get access to a certain amount of land at a certain price margin in order to establish their farms - to begin borrowing money to start expanding their holding. And if you cut off the bottom 25-40%, and in places like Leitrim, the bottom 50% of the land market and make it non-viable for young farmers, then you won’t have young farmers in those areas. You will have trees.”
Macra’s solution to the problem?
“We would like to see is a graded system for grant aid, which takes account of how productive the land would be for farming, as opposed to forestry.”