‘The fields of the poor may produce abundant food, but injustice sweeps it away’ Proverbs 13:23
Driving to Bunclody, Co Wexford to attend a service during the summer, I passed a memorial stone at the roadside. Outside the village of Ballon, the stone commemorates a gathering of the Land League in 1882. The Land League was a tenant farmers’ association, campaigning for farmers’ rights. Its success was due, at least in part, to the simplicity of the campaign. Its demands were for three ‘fs’ – Fair Rent, Fixity of Tenure and Free Sale and its long term impact was to change the face of Ireland. The Land League, while having many faults, demonstrated the power of ordinary people to change the situation in which they were living.
As if the upcoming changes in the European Union Single Farm Payment system were not sufficient to cause worry and create pressure in the farming communities in which we live, the worst summer many of us can remember caused bills for feedstuffs in the summer months and reduced considerably the stock of fodder with which to face the winter. Whether or not we are farming, we are members of a community that is now under serious pressure. Debts in our community mean a shortage of money in the local economy, they mean consequences none of us can escape.
The Land League arose from An Gorta Beag, the mini-famine of 1879. Extremes of weather brought a failure of the harvest, food shortages and people struggling to make a living from the land. People felt they had to do something to change things, something to try to improve their situation.
As Christians, when we are going through difficult times, we tend to turn not to political organisation but to Scripture for answers. What does the Bible say about things? What does the Bible say about low incomes and people struggling to pay bills? What does it say about people working for nothing and hard work being done for people elsewhere to make a profit.
If we applied Biblical standards to the way we run our economy it could bring changes far more fundamental than anything achieved by the Land League. There are two ‘fs’ which are supported by Scripture which could make a huge difference to agricultural communities.
The first ‘f’ is fair pay. The Bible is adamant that people should be paid for the work. ‘Do not hold back the wages of a hired worker overnight’ says Leviticus 19:13. Deuteronomy 24:15 regards not giving people fair pay as a si. ‘Pay them their wages each day before sunset’, it says’, ‘because they are poor and are counting on it. Otherwise they may cry to the LORD against you, and you will be guilty of sin’. Jesus talks about the ministry of his disciples in terms of workers receiving fair pay, ‘the worker deserves his wages’, he says in Luke 10:7.
If we took the Biblical principle of fair pay and we applied it to our local community, what would it mean? What would fair pay mean in our farming community? Wouldn’t it mean that people at least received the minimum wage for their work? If someone is guaranteed at least €8.65 an hour as an employee, shouldn’t people who farm also reasonably expect that they might earn €8.65 an hour? It doesn’t sound very much, but if one assumed that farming meant a working week of 48 hours (though many people work far more), then €8.65 an hour would be the equivalent of €415 a week or €21,590 a year.
A guaranteed income of €21,590 would be less than the Teagasc figure for average farm income in 2011 which at €24,861 was the highest ever, but much higher than the 2010 average of €18,789—and those were average figures, not guaranteed minimum figures.
If the Bible instructs that people should receive fair pay, shouldn’t we listen? Do we not think God knows about the right way to order a society? What does it mean to be a Christian if we do not try to apply Biblical rules?
When it comes to the government administering the single farm payment, should it not ensure that full time farmers receive at least the minimum wage? How much different life might be for many members of our communities if they were guaranteed a level of income most working people would take for granted? Wouldn’t that be the fair thing to do? Wouldn’t that be the Biblical thing to do?
Fair pay. The second ‘f’ is fair trade. Many of us will have met the idea of fair trade. Tea, coffee, fruit, many other items: the fairtrade mark on them shows that the farmers receive fair prices, have decent working conditions, and are allowed to farm in sustainable ways.
The Old Testament prophet Amos is scathing about merchants who did not give farmers a fair deal, he writes in Chapter 8, Verses 4-7, ‘Hear this, you who trample the needy and do away with the poor of the land, saying, “When will the New Moon be over that we may sell grain, and the Sabbath be ended
that we may market wheat?”— skimping on the measure, boosting the price and cheating with dishonest scales, buying the poor with silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, selling even the sweepings with the wheat’.
What would Amos make of the companies who in our own times force farmers to take low prices while boosting their on profits year by year?
We live in times where business is done in ways that are contrary to Biblical principles. There are numerous verses in Scripture that point to God’s justice and man’s injustice. Proverbs 13:23 says, ‘The fields of the poor may produce abundant food, but injustice sweeps it away’. Read those words about abundant fields producing no income and they are not so far from our own times when farmers who work for good crop yields, who build up productive dairy herds, who raise fine livestock, end up losing money on all their efforts.
If the fair trade principles that have done so much to improve the lives of farmers overseas are Biblical principles, if they are the right way and the just way for the farmers in poor countries, then shouldn’t they also apply to farmers here in Ireland? If the campaign to get fair terms for farmers in the developing world could be so successful, would not a campaign here in Ireland work as well? If there can be a fairtrade mark to encourage us to buy tea, coffee and fruit in the knowledge that the farmers have received a fair reward, could there not also be a fairtrade mark here? Couldn’t we have Irish produce that is marked in a way that shows that the producers have received a fair price for their work? If we had fair trade in our own country, many of the current problems and fears about the future would disappear.
Fair pay and fair trade are not unachievable dreams. Fair pay can be achieved through the administration of the Single Farm Payment in a way that focuses upon working farmers. Fair trade can be achieved through educating people about the realities of the current situation and asking them to change things.
Fair pay and fair trade are not opinion, they come from Scripture, they come from God’s way of organising society. Two ‘fs’ – simpler than the demands of the Land League but with the power to make our communities and our country a different place.