Factories have too much power, say farmers at ‘beef summit’

Minister agrees that farmers are facing a critical time

Members of the Irish Farmers’ Association at a protest outside Cork City Hall. Photograph:  Michelle Devane/PA Wire

Members of the Irish Farmers’ Association at a protest outside Cork City Hall. Photograph: Michelle Devane/PA Wire

 

John Flaherty travelled nearly 200km from his farm in Castleisland, Co Kerry to join more than a thousand others in Ballinasloe, Co Galway to have his voice heard.

“This has been the worst year I have had since I started farming over 45 years ago. Everyone is making money except the primary producer,” he declared.

Mr Flaherty was one of nearly 1,300 farmers who travelled for “a beef summit” organised by The Irish Farmers Journal. Before it, 600 of them marched behind a horse and cart, carrying a coffin marked “RIP Irish Beef”.

Inside, Minister for Agriculture Food and the Marine Michael Creed was heckled when he addressed the meeting, promising that their concerns would be heard.

Prices must rise, said Carlow farmer James Murphy: “2018 was a bad year with extra feed costs, and it was hard to get through it and I’m not back on my feet yet. It will take the rest of this year and maybe next year,” he said.

The monopolistic power enjoyed by the factories must be stopped, he said. “I’m hoping [he] will do something about the factory prices. They have complete control.”

Farmers must see a future, if they are to have the will to survive, said Seamus Fallon from Taughmaconnell, Co Roscommon. “We are working for a small income.

“The young people cannot see a future in farming alone and every farm should be viable. The problem is nationwide because the meat factories are controlling the price.”

Campaign group

Hundreds have joined a campaign group, Beef Plan Movement, which argues that farmers’ profits have for years “been eaten into by beef processors and retailers and, as a result, beef farming is on its knees”.

In Tipperary, Mary Ryan serves as secretary of Beef Plan’s local branch: “I worry if beef isn’t viable, and it is very important to rural life. Farmers support shops, post offices, butchers and village life.”

Entering the meeting at the Shearwater Hotel, Michael Creed said he wanted to listen to the concerns, but accepted that farmers were facing a critical time.

Change is everywhere: the impact of Brexit on sales to the United Kingdom; while the Common Agricultural Policy (Cap) is facing reform, too.

Up to now, the Government’s determination has been to avoid a “hard” Brexit, and, if there is one, to ensure that support from Brussels is there to plug gaps.

The Government had taken action on a series of fronts, said Mr Creed, including encouragement for more live exports and more help for those working on poor lands.

“But we do need the support of the commission in other areas and that is why we have made a submission to Commissioner [Phil] Hogan, ” he declared.

Worryingly, UCD’s professor, Michael Wallace, warned that 52,000 full-time and more than 14,000 suckler farms could be lost in the next decade.

The country’s suckler herd, used to breed and suckle calves for beef, were worth €2.9 billion to Ireland’s economy, said Mr Wallace, an internationally regarded expert on agriculture, food and economics.

In Galway, Mayo and Roscommon, sucklers are worth €700 million and 12,000 jobs; while in the Midlands the worth has been put at €450 million, along with 7,800 jobs.

In Donegal, Sligo, Leitrim, Cavan and Monaghan, where other jobs are few, sucklers generate €445 million and 8,600 jobs, said Mr Wallace.

In the dairy-dominated counties of the east and south, farmers, nevertheless, rely on sucklers for €835 million worth of income, while 15,600 jobs depend on them, too.

Optimism

However, Asia could provide relief this year, said Phelim O’Neill of the Irish Farmers Journal: “There are grounds for optimism out there.”

China’s pig herds have been decimated by African swine fever: “The effect has been to leave the shelves empty of pig-meat.

“It is going to drive demand over the rest of this year, for a whole range of agri-products, whether it’s poultry, beef or sheep meat.

“It gives us a much more positive and brighter picture for our industry in the later part of this year, than we have experienced in the past first six months.”