A pre-Christmas blockade of Dublin streets by farmers protesting against uneconomic prices being paid for cattle is beginning to concentrate minds within Government. After some initial blunders, Minister for Agriculture Michael Creed responded by expressing a desire to reconvene the Beef Task Force and to see a lifting of court injunctions against the picketing of meat plants. Those matters are, however, outside of his immediate control. Some protesters were slow to recognise that reality but, in the end, reason prevailed and the tractor blockade was lifted.
Farmers are going through tough times. Teagasc estimated that average family farm incomes fell by 21 per cent in 2018 because of persistently bad weather. But an across-the-board rise of 7 per cent is anticipated for this year. Beef production is a cyclical industry and worldwide prices have been falling. Irish factory prices, published for the first time this week by Bord Bia, suggested the possibility of a price rise. That may not materialise because prices are weakening across the EU while, in Northern Ireland, prices fell by one-quarter during the past year.
In such situations, emotion is no substitute for strategy. Decisions by both the Irish Creamery and Milk Suppliers Association and the IFA to stand aloof from this confrontation suggests their belief that unrealistic demands were being made. Farmers are understandably frustrated by low prices and what they regard as exploitation of their labour by processing plants and supermarkets. Those grievances can, however, only be addressed across the negotiating table.
The Government is not an innocent bystander in all of this. The policy of successive governments has been to maximise agricultural output, be it beef, dairy, sheep or cereal production. And while the dairy sector has performed particularly well, many beef and sheep producers have struggled, as production costs exceeded factory prices. EU subsidies have kept many of these marginal farms afloat but, in the context of carbon mitigation and climate change, those supports cannot be relied upon. It may be time for Government to review agricultural policy.