Life at the top of Irish farm politics was satisfying for Tipperary man Jackie

Sian Moloughney

Sian Moloughney

Rising to be the top man in one of Ireland’s main farming organisations seemed an unlikely path for a young man who had no ‘gra’ for the farming life, but as Jackie Cahill proves, life can take unexpected turns.

The president of the ICMSA (Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers Association) for six years until his term ended before Christmas, the Thurles man once considered a career in accountancy, and turning his back on the family farm. But that all changed one summer morning when his father straight out asked the teenage-Jackie to take over the farm. The rest, as they say, is history.

Jackie Cahill has come to the end of his term as president of the ICMSA this year. But the 49 year-old single farmer, whose dairy farm is located within shouting distance of Semple Stadium, doesn’t expect life will suddenly get quiet - he has recently been elected chairman of the National Dairy Council and is on Bord Bia. He is also involved with the local co-op, and says he has plenty of pass times to occupy his time.

Jackie has been heavily involved in the ICMSA for 12 years - first as deputy president for six years before serving three, two-year terms as president. Giving up that busy life and going back to just being a farmer would have been hard, he concedes, but that’s not likely.

Farming politics had Jackie on the road most days of the week but he still made an effort to be at home for milking every morning. It would be impossible to keep his farm without the full time man he has employed, and also, he says, without the support of his family - sister Kay, her husband Tom Skehan and nephew Thomas.

When he goes back into the house, after milking, he says he has to close the door and get on with ICMSA work. He is committed to the role and says it’s one that gives him great satisfaction.

This from a self-confessed “reluctant farmer.”

“I looked at other career options, I didn’t have a huge gra for farming, growing up,” he told The Nationalist. “I was on the farm, did my Leaving Cert and was ready for uni when my father asked me to stay. We always got on exceptionally well. He said ‘will you stay at home on the farm?’ My mother wasn’t best pleased at the time.”

Jackie says his father, although older, was a progressive farmer. The Cahill’s had a fragmented farm and when Jackie was 20 his father gave him an outside farm to manage. The elder Cahill became ill soon after that and at 24 the whole farm was signed over the Jackie. His sister and mother were still living there at the time.

His father was a good farmer and kept a good, commercial farm of beef and dairy animals.

Farming ‘in a good place’

“Farming is in a different place to where it was four or five years ago,” Jackie moves back to the present. Farming organisations have gone from being a “nuisance” to government to being seen “as the key momentum to economic recovery.”

Jackie says that if Ireland meets its 2020 targets then it could mean up to E1 billion to exports, on the dairy side alone. There is a huge potential for the development of the beef trade from Ireland, too, he says, predicting that beef will become scarce on the world market now that Argentina have cut back on beef exports to Germany. Germany is already a huge dairy market for Ireland and Jackie says there is no reason why we can’t emulate that success with beef.

Another sign of the rising tide in farming is that agricultural colleges are full. Only a few years ago classes were just 50% subscribed and many agricultural colleges closed. Jackie went to Rockwell agricultural college and that has closed. It’s a sign of the times, he says. The construction industry was attractive to farmers’ sons, who were used to physical work at home, when it was hard for the farm to give them a wage structure. Now that has turned around.

“The amount of people I meet now that are delighted their father kept milking going, they can come back and develop that.

“Whatever jobs are there, farming is holding its own. It’s not a bed of roses all the time but being your own boss has its advantages.”

Jackie cites Glanbia and Kerry Group as “massive success stories” as companies that “came from the cow’s teat.”

“In 2009 farming was in dire straights, milk was 21/22 cent a litre, farmers couldn’t pay bills. There has been a complete transformation and the demand for diary products is strong, driven by India and China.”

There is a temporary worry about supply, according to Jackie, but he thinks the markets can absorb this. There is a huge increase in supply from New Zealand, up 14% on this time last year. Mid-term to long-term this is not a worry though, he adds.

Farmers are worried about costs and competitiveness, and they need to improve land structure, are other areas of concern to farming.

“You can argue about the number of cows one man can milk, that unit has to be able to return a viable family income.” Jackie says he would also like to see a tax system that would allow farmers to invest in land. “It’s hard for farmers to expand if they have to finance it from after tax profits.

“We are unique in Europe that are farms are so fragmented, but in general farming is in a good place.”

Price warning for

consumers

As Jackie was heading into his final round of AGMs as ICMSA president he saw a different mood, farmers are talking about expansion – two years ago they were asking about survival!

He does have a warning for consumer, on the back of the developments in agriculture - “We haven’t had food inflation in a generation, some would say it went backwards. That can’t continue. Prices are going to keep rising and consumers will have to get used to that.”

Jackie says that consumer spending on groceries in the last ten years has fallen to 10% of take home pay, half of what it used to be. That couldn’t continue.

“I am concerned about the power of retailers. They seem to be able to tell governments what to do, they seem to have unreal clout. They dictate prices. Something is going to have to be done. Dairies fighting for market share have given retailers more and more. From what was a profitable industry, it’s not now. That has to stop. In most cases consumers are paying enough but division that is not fair. It has to be regulated on a European level.

In 2007/08 there was huge building work done on farms to control pollution. You could see the spin off of this investment in rural areas, Jackie said. “If farms are going well you see towns going well. There will be money in circulation. The way to promote the rural economy is if farming is going well.”

Farming and farm-politics balance

Combining a working farm and a full time job as ICMSA president meant Jackie was not just busy but ‘run off his feet.’

“I do my best to be here in the morning to milk. I can’t be here every morning. Usually when I come in after that I won’t be out again until the next morning. In calving season I might go out and check the cows. I try to arrange two days at home for TB testing of the herd.

“Organisation would be finding it harder to find people who can afford to give time and commitment. I’m not looking for sympathy but it is tiring. Saturday evening I would be pure exhausted. I’m lucky where I am living, close to the motorway and the train line.

“You have to have family back up. You have to have the mentality that if there is something wrong out in the yard in the morning you have to put it behind you, close the door and get on the road. How fella’s did it before the advent of the mobile phone I don’t know. It is a huge commitment. Once you become president there is very rarely a day that you are at home.

Jackie says it’s not a life anyone would choose if they didn’t get some satisfaction from it.

“My father would have been very involved in farm politics, the coop, he was a council member of the ICMSA. He got sick when I was in my 20s. He resigned his seat on the coop board and ‘press ganged’ me into standing for his seat.”

Jackie went on to stand for the national council of the ICMSA. A few years later he was elected to the Administration Committee, because it was felt there should be a Tipp man on it, as a main ICMSA county.

Jackie was a reluctant nominee but four years later he was the diary chairman, then went on to be the deputy president and then president.

“I’d have said, as a young fella, I couldn’t understand farming politics. I used to wonder what the hell my father spent so much time talking on the phone about for two or three hours. I realise now! Farm politics is as competitive as any politics. I was lucky I won most of the elections I went for. My style is not flamboyant, I like to get things done.”

Job satisfaction and an active ‘retirement’

Jackie is now a member of the National Diary Board and feels that his appointment to that is a recognition that he did a “reasonable job” as president of the ICMSA. “That gives me a good bit of satisfaction.”

His most stressful time in farm politics, Jackie says, was the merging of the local coop with the Centenary coop. “After hassle and hard decisions I was able to come back and get a huge vote and go back on the board. I got huge satisfaction from that.”

He stepped down as vice chair when he became president of ICMSA, “because I couldn’t’ be gamekeeper and poacher.”

As an NDC and Bord Bia member Jackie will have less work to do, down the track, and he says he doesn’t think it will be impossible to settle back into farming.

“I’d be a man with a good few pass times. I definitely won’t be idle. We keep a few greyhounds and I’m a director of the local dog track. I’d like to go horse racing, I’ve missed Cheltenham a couple of times. I’d like to play bridge, I don’t have much time for that now.”