Máire Ahern McCarthy took up her new position as Branch Manager for Bank of Ireland Clonakilty, Skibbereen and Bantry in April when Ireland was just a few weeks into lockdown. Not the foot perhaps that she envisaged her new role to take off on but none-the-less a good test of mettle, particularly when it comes to putting into practice her passionate belief that the bank needs to provide support in times of need.
Her approach is hands-on, as is that of John Fitzgerald Area Agri Manager Bank of Ireland. From farming backgrounds, both take huge pride in West Cork’s sustainably produced milk, grass fed beef and safely produced produce.
With 55 per cent of branch business lending at Bank of Ireland in Co. Cork to the agri-sector, at the heart of Máire and John’s role is to develop Bank of Ireland as a choice bank for anyone interested in developing their farm or agri-business.
“For so many businesses in West Cork it was a case of shutters down over the past three months,’ says John “but not so for farmers. Lockdown didn’t really impact the day-to-day workings on the farm other than creating uncertainty around the commodity prices.”
“We’re very lucky down here,” says Máire. “The business model in the West Cork Co-op’s and Carbery has helped reward West Cork Farmers with the best milk prices, as well as insulate us from negative movements in milk price, as we are seeing with the impact of Covid-19.
Farmers generate sizeable economic activity in rural parishes.
“Bank of Ireland has a very serious vested interest in the agri-sector and want to see it thrive,” continues Máire.
With Ireland’s target of 30 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions (compared to 2005 levels) by 2030 and agriculture expected to play its part in this, the key word on farms across Ireland right now is sustainability.
Although Irish agriculture may have a global reputation for high environmental standards, the expansion in dairying since milk quota removal means that farmers are under pressure to lower emissions. Increasing carbon capture, improving water quality and protecting and improving biodiversity are all means by which farmers can reduce their carbon footprint.
“Since 2015, the volume of milk produced in Carbery has gone up by 46 per cent,” explains John “so West Cork farmers will need more cows and better facilities. That’s where we come in to offer support. Saying that, we also need to be happy that the sustainability of the farm is maintained at the same time.”
With the launch of the world’s first Grass Fed Dairy Standard by Bord Bia in May, the percentage of grass consumed in the diet of Irish dairy herds can now be tracked and verified. This means that Irish dairy processors will be able to provide verifiable proof that milk used in their products has come from grass fed cows.
“West Cork is very much already meeting that standard,” says Máire. ‘Our cows are out on grass 24 hours a day from mid-February or 300-plus days of the year and the Bord Bia branding will distinguish us from the likes of the Netherland’s ‘meadow milk’ branding where cows graze for only six hours a day or 120 days per year.
“Our milk is much more sustainably produced than anywhere else in the world agrees John “and there is a premium to be achieved over time from selling our milk with that branding.”
Since 2012, Carbery has been running its Greener Dairy programme, which aims to map the carbon footprint of a number of dairy farms supplying milk to Carbery. The group is now aiming to develop the world’s first carbon-neutral dairy farm.
“This is very much cutting edge in terms of sustainable development in agriculture and you’re now seeing other co-ops promoting environmental sustainability measures with their suppliers,” says John. “For example in April’s milk price, Glanbia paid 0.2 of a cent more per litre to farmers, as an incentive to invest in biodiversity on their farms.”
Origin Green measures sustainability on Ireland’s farms through the Irish Food Board’s (Bord Bia’s) Sustainable Assurance Schemes.
“If you’re generating a carbon footprint on the production of milk you can offset that through the process of carbon sequestration, for example by planting trees, hedgerows and biodiversity areas,” says John.
West Cork is renowned worldwide for excellence in dairy farming and food production and with people on the ground at Bank of Ireland who know the industry from the inside out; the bank is well positioned to offer the right support to that sector.
“We see the agri-sector as being an integral part of West Cork,” says Máire. “Nowhere else in the world will you get that creamy yellow butter that comes from grass-fed Irish cows. I’ve heard so many people comment on the taste and colour of our butter.” The science behind this is the beta-carotene (yellow pigment) found in the grass eaten by cows; this is stored in the cows’ fat and carried into the milk. “Other countries have baked potatoes with butter, we have butter with baked potatoes! Initiatives like West Cork Farm Tours that offer an experience, as well as showcasing the food that West Cork is renowned for, have seen huge growth in the past few years. West Cork tourism has been built around food and we want to do everything in our power to help develop that in the future.”
To be eligible for derogation farmers need to be more efficient. “This means investing in better grassland management, better genetics and also better infrastructure. And we’re here to support that,” says John.
“We also don’t know how Covid is going to play out in terms of its impact on farmers in the longer term so we’re here to step in to support a farmer with working capital, changing payment terms on loans etc.”
“Being a sounding board is part of our role at the bank so I’d encourage farmers to proactively come to us rather than waiting for the issues to arise,” says Máire.
John agrees. “A farmer looking to borrow money should see the bank as an investor in their farm, not as a threat,” he emphasises. “Of course we’re going to make a return on our investment but so is the farmer.”
Máire and John are both looking forward to further developing and supporting the circular economy through agriculture in West Cork.
Máire can be contacted on 087 2354353.