Wexford native Sean Ryan operates a mixed farming enterprise, which includes potato-growing, tillage and cattle, as well running a small farm shop. He is also the Irish Farmers’ Association’s National Potato chairman. Sean gave Irish Tractor Agri & Plant his views on some of the issues facing the potato sector at present.
Since stepping into the role of IFA National Potato Chairman this past February, Sean Ryan has made it his mission to try to achieve a fair price for growers in this country.
A grower himself, Sean’s farm is based between Ballywilliam and Rathnure in Co Wexford, where his family hails from.
Sean took over the family farm from his parents, John and Eileen. Today, he operates the business with his partner, Mary, and son, Cathal, and describes himself as a ‘small enough grower in today’s terms’.
“We grow potatoes, vegetables, spring barley and fodder beet as well as maintaining grassland. We buy 40-50 calves around late January/early February every year and they are finished to beef at about 22 to 26 months. Waste potatoes and vegetables, along with fodder beet, are fed to the cattle using a Keenan diet feeder,” he told Irish Tractor Agri & Plant.
“We also have a small farm shop in the yard, where we sell our own produce, along with fruit, jams and chutneys.”
As well as being a grower, Sean offers services in contract spraying and fertiliser spreading.
A large portion of his spreading and spraying work is carried out for customers of his brother’s agricultural contracting business, Michael Ryan & Son Agricultural Contractors.
The variety of farming enterprises certainly keeps him busy all year round.
At the beginning of this year, Sean stepped into the role of IFA National Potato chairman and, given the number of issues that are currently facing those in the potato-growing sector, and the work that is needed to try to address them, it is no surprise that these past six months have flown by for him.
Having previously served as Wexford chairman for three years, Sean was an integral part of the IFA National Potato committee in Bluebell, Co Dublin. In January of this year, he was voted into the ‘hot-seat’ and took on the responsibility with an acute awareness that the present-day circumstances we find ourselves in have created a number of key issues that must be tackled.
“I took over from Thomas McKeown in January, and it was a very busy time to do so, with everything that was going on,” Sean stated.
“The pandemic, Brexit and the war in Ukraine have all provided a variety of issues and new challenges for the potato-growing sector, not least the huge increase in production costs that we have seen over the past year.
“There are a lot of issues that need to be addressed, and the sector needs a voice,” he stated.
“Firstly, in terms of the expectations from the supermarkets, I feel strongly that the spec for potatoes has gone too high.
“They’re looking for the perfect potato when it comes to shape and colour. Huge volumes of perfect eating-quality potatoes are being fed to cattle due to their not meeting the very high spec required by the supermarkets. This occurs at great expense to the grower, as this practice yields a return of only a tiny fraction of what the potatoes would have cost to produce.
“Sometimes the tare (volume of potato that is not accepted) can be up to 30 percent. That’s almost a third of the crop gone. It’s just not acceptable, especially with the current climate and the rocketing production costs.”
Above all, Sean views production costs as being the number one issue for potato growers throughout Ireland at present. He has warned, in recent times, that spiralling input costs will lead to less planting of potatoes throughout the country.
His stance, which many in the sector echo, is that the upcoming season won’t be viable unless growers get the price increases that they need to sustain the industry and a reasonable livelihood.
He, and others on the potato committee, are working tirelessly behind the scenes to try and make sure that growers get their fair share.
“Production costs are probably the biggest challenge facing the sector right now,” said the Wexford man.
“The other thing we’re working on at the moment is the Unfair Trading Practices (UTP) Regulations. These are designed to support the principal of fairness and transparency in the agriculture and food supply chain.”
The UTP Regulations introduced new requirements for supply agreements between food suppliers and buyers where the supplier has relatively weaker bargaining power than the buyer based on annual turnover.
The interim enforcement authority identified in the UTP Regulations is the Minister for Agriculture, Food, and the Marine. However, a new regulator is expected to be established this year and the Government has confirmed that it will establish a new authority, the National Food Ombudsman, which will be responsible for enforcing the UTP Regulations in Ireland along with a role in analysing and reporting on price and market data.
Sean, and his colleagues in the IFA, are working hard to get this legislation through and to have the ombudsman put in place as quickly as possible. They have been meeting the Minister and some of his department officials and are consistently pushing for progress on this matter.
“The problem for many growers is that they are apprehensive about speaking up. They fear that any effort to challenge the prevailing practices will result in them being dropped by the businesses they supply and being left with no outlet for their product.
“If we could get this new legislation passed, they would be able to bring their grievances to the IFA, or to other farming representatives, who can then go discreetly to this new state body with these issues, allowing the farmer to remain anonymous. It would really help growers to come forward to push their case and to fight their corner, and it may make the supermarkets stand back a little and rethink their way of working. We are really hoping that this will all be in place by the end of the year.”
Looking towards the months ahead and into early next year, the chairman pledges to keep up the fight that he hopes will eventually see growers getting a fair price for their produce.
“We’ve already had early-grower meetings and we will be meeting the main-crop growers in the coming months. These are very important meetings as these are the people that we need to listen to. They are the ones that are on the ground every day, and it is very important to get everyone around a table to discuss the issues facing them. Some very good ideas have come from grower meetings. As well as the meetings, I’m always at the end of the phone to listen to, and to take on board, any suggestions that growers may have.
“We will also continue to meet the Department officials, Bord Bia and representatives of the various supermarkets about the issues facing our growers.
“The growers need their fair share of the income that potatoes provide. Like any other commodity, they’re doing eighty-five percent of the work, getting approximately twenty-five percent of the market price (depending on bag size), but taking one hundred percent of the risk associated with producing the product.
“Farming is a fantastic occupation. It facilitates a lovely way of life for families, and it is the lifeblood of our country. It has come a long way in terms of machinery and technology, and it has so much to offer for the young men and women of the next generations. They will be the backbone of the farming sector in the future, and so we must ensure that these young people are encouraged to join the sector by providing the means for them to make a viable livelihood, in a way that is fair and reasonable to all parties – farmers, their suppliers and those whom they supply. If we can all work together and work for each other, allowing each party to have a fair slice of the pie, I have no doubt that we can look toward a bright future for the sector.”
First published in Irish Tractor & Agri magazine Vol 10 No 5, September/October 2022