Gathering up a copy of the Irish Farmers Journal and a two litre container of milk, I went to the counter. “Have you a loyalty card?” asked the young woman at the checkout. The card was scanned along with the purchases, it took 20 cent off the price of the milk, the price was still enough to leave the retailer with a handsome profit.
“You didn’t have any fuel?” she inquired. I shook my head. “And you don’t do the lotto?”
“No”, I said, “isn’t life enough of a gamble?”
“It sure is”, she replied.
There was temptation to recite a line from Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead, “Life is a gamble, at terrible odds – if it was a bet you wouldn’t take it”. Of course, the young woman would have looked at me in bewilderment: what was this priest talking about? It would have been superfluous to have told the other customers at the filling station that life was a gamble, they could have told you that the odds were terrible.
Daily life for small farmers is a gamble. If the vagaries of the Irish climate were not sufficient cause for anxiety, a late spring, or a wet summer, or a cold winter having the potential to present serious problems, then the globalisation of agriculture can bear down severely on those with already small margins. Numerous potential price fluctuations can make guessing profit margins as exact a science as trying to pick all the winners at a horse race meeting. Feedstuffs, fuel, veterinary fees, land rents, transport costs; all could be subject to unanticipated rises, while the price received for one’s crops, or livestock, or milk, could fall, sometimes as a result of the manipulation of markets. To budget is difficult when one does not know how much one is going to spend and how much one is going to earn; little wonder that younger people, looking for security and a reasonable income, tend to shy away from the land.
Sitting in the car, I watched a man with his son beside him in the car drive off the forecourt. The car had been new around the turn of the century, its towing hitch looked as though it had given many hours of service. Perhaps there was a wife at home who worked in a salaried job, brought in a regular income, drove the “good” car. Were it not for the off farm income, would many farmers with families continue on the land? Off course, there is the basic payment scheme, the successor to the single farm payment, without which many farms would have no income at all, but it is increasingly skewed to giving most to those who have most, hardly in the spirit of the 1957 Common Agricultural Policy that was intended to ensure food security, keep people on the land and sustain rural communities. To him who has shall be given!
Would the man’s son want to continue the gamble? In ten years’ time, would he be on the land? When the odds are stacked against you, do you take the bet?