Beef Plan founder believes he is fighting for rural Ireland’s survival

‘Government has no sense of how beef farmers’ euro filters through community’

Farmers say for every €10 of beef bought off the shelves, the farmer gets €2, the processor gets €2.90 and the supermarket gets €5.10. Photograph: Todd Korol/Reuters

Farmers say for every €10 of beef bought off the shelves, the farmer gets €2, the processor gets €2.90 and the supermarket gets €5.10. Photograph: Todd Korol/Reuters

 

For Hugh Doyle, farmer protests that have been crippling meat factories around the country are nothing less than a last-gasp fight for the very survival of rural Ireland.

“Nobody in government at present seems to get it,” says the co-founder of Beef Plan, which has morphed from a WhatsApp group set up only nine months ago into a 20,000-strong movement bringing a hugely-profitable industry to a near standstill.

“Rural Ireland is up for grabs here. Take the beef industry out and that is it. The money they spend in the local shop, pub, the vet, local mechanic: the Government has no sense of how the average beef farmer’s euro filters through his community.”

Doyle (55), who runs a herd of 100 Limousine, Charolais and Simmental suckler cows on his farm in Summerhill, Co Meath, and fellow farmer Eamon Corley set up the WhatsApp group last winter.

They began “brainstorming” a plan to save themselves and other small farmers from having to give up what is, for many, a labour of love – work often carried out between other jobs which pay them a wage.

Disaffection

More and more joined the group, as it tapped into a widespread disaffection, and in some cases despair, among Ireland’s 100,000 beef farmers over steadily dwindling prices for their cattle alongside increasing veterinary, feed and fertiliser costs.

Many farmers also complained about how they were being represented by the Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA) and other organisations.

Doyle says there are 21,500 farmers in the Beef Plan movement today.

After travelling around the country’s cattle marts to talk with farmers, he and Corley came up with an 86-point plan to rescue the industry and decided on a rollout of demonstrations the length of the island.

At about 5pm on Sunday, July 28th, the first protest was mounted outside an ABP meat processing factory in Bandon, Co Cork. ABP is controlled by beef magnate Larry Goodman.

Pickets soon spread to 21 of the country’s 29 largest meat-processing factories, including plants owned by Kepak and Dawn Meats, two of the other major players in the industry.

Up to 3,500 beef farmers manned the 24-hour pickets in Cork, Tipperary, Clare, Cavan, Meath, Limerick, Westmeath and Donegal on any given day, says Doyle. The pickets were suspended on Friday evening to allow for talks on Monday aimed at resolving the impasse.

Meat processors alleged “serious intimidation and outright illegality” at pickets, but Beef Plan say they are peaceful, although it “stepped away” from protests at three plants where it said farmers were not adhering to issued guidelines.

Gardaí are investigating two incidents connected to demonstrations at Bandon, Co Cork, and Rathkeale, Co Limerick. They are also investigating an incident in which a 57-year-old farmer was seriously injured after being crushed by a lorry outside a meat-processing plant in Slane, Co, Meath.

About 1.85 million cattle are slaughtered in Ireland every year – about 600,000 tonnes or 5,000 cattle every day. That has halved since the protests began, and 14 factories have been forced to shut down.

The industry, worth more than €2.5 billion to the overall economy, blames the drop on “blockades” at factory gates, but farmers say it is more to do with their boycott. Many are refusing to bring their cattle in.

On average, a farmer gets between €1,250 and €1,350 for a cow at the factory gates. Five years ago, they were getting upwards of €1,500.

Many farmers just break even, or even make a loss, under the current rates, says Doyle.

“The farmer will tell you, nearly to the cent, what it costs them to produce a kilo of beef. The processors won’t give any figures.” He suspects, through calculations, that profit margins for processors are between 6 and 12 per cent.

But Cormac Healy, of Meat Industry Ireland (MII), which represents the major processors, including APB, Dawn and Kepak, says that figure is “off the mark completely”.

“It is a low-margin, high-turnover business,” he said, insisting margins are “maximum 1 per cent”.

While most of the main processors do not have to publish their profits in Ireland, The Irish Times revealed last month that the multinational Goodman Group had profits of €170 million last year.

The IFA said at the time it “shows that he’s making millions on the backs of beef farmers” and called for the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission to investigate margins in the industry.

Mr Healy said those profits were from multiple businesses, and not just beef processing.

Latest accounts for another major processor Arrow Group, owned by brothers Peter, John and Michael Queally, who also own Dawn Meats, show it made operating profits of more than €19 million last year.

“There is loads of money in the beef industry,” says Doyle. “It’s just that the poor farmer isn’t getting any of it. The main processors in this country are some of the richest men in Ireland.”

What is also unknown is how much the supermarkets make on beef. Farmers say for every €10 of beef bought off the shelves, the farmer gets €2, the processor gets €2.90 and the supermarket gets €5.10.

Tesco, one of the country’s largest supermarket chains and also a major operator in the UK, where about 55 per cent of Irish beef is exported, declined to answer a number of questions about its mark-up and its role in what could lead to looming beef shortages on supermarket shelves if the protests continue.

“We have no involvement in deciding the prices paid directly to farmers,” a spokeswoman said.

“All of our own-label fresh beef is 100 per cent Irish which is sourced through processors who in turn agree pricing directly with farmers.”

Tesco’s UK and Ireland operation made an operating profit of €1.7 billion last year.

Musgrave, which owns SuperValu and Centra, and which made a profit of €84.5 million last year, was asked for comment but had yet to respond by the time of publication.

“The supermarkets are the only ones who can solve this problem,” said Doyle.

“We are picketing the processors because we want them to engage with the retailers.”

Contracts

Doyle says farmers want contracts with the big supermarkets – “they can name what they want, the spec they want, everything, and it will be up to farmers to supply that” – but he says they won’t talk with them.

“You would get an audience with the Pope quicker than you would with one of their meat buyers,” he says.

Healy says there is a view that beef is being used by the supermarkets as as a “loss leader” to pull in customers, suggesting a wider conversation is needed about consumers expecting low-cost foods.

Brexit and the sliding value of sterling – the UK is Ireland’s main market – are also contributing to low prices for cattle, he said, but he added the prices remain on average the same as elsewhere in the European Union.

While Beef Plan suspended protests over the weekend and MII called off its legal threat to allow for talks, protest leaders told farmers in a WhatsApp message that if they were “not satisfied that sufficient progress is being made, we will leave the talks and resume our protests with immediate effect on Monday night”.

Doyle says: “At the end of the day, our farmers are prepared to cripple themselves financially if they have to.

“This is the last time farmers will get a chance to stand up for their rights. Until the processors understand they have to engage with the retailers and find a new solution, we are not prepared to continue farming at an absolute loss.

“Because I am spending my children’s inheritance every time I go out to farm. It is not on.”