You are viewing the content for Wednesday 22 February 2006

Farmers on a winner with beet compensation

By Brian O’Mahony
IT was obvious at the IFA protest before the Greencore annual general meeting (AGM) that money and not the growing of another crop of beet was the main item on the agenda.

Legend has it also that when Agriculture Minister Mary Coughlan phoned home during the Brussels negotiations on the future of the industry to fine-tune her stance on the issue she was told to go with whatever the IFA wanted.

That’s the view of disgruntled farmers, beet growers in the south in fact, who have met the minister and other Dáil representatives in the past few weeks to raise their concerns over the beet situation.

Some of them are so angry at the IFA’s money- grabbing stance they wanted to vote no confidence in the organisation because it didn’t oppose Brussels with more vigour on the sugar question.

After consultations among top growers in the south that proposition was ditched, but beet growers from the region are still fighting to hold on to the crop for as long as possible.

They argue no one can know for certain what food shortages might hit the world and Europe could yet find itself in short supply.

Future supplies can never be guaranteed and the abandonment of the crop, for whatever reason, leaves us vulnerable in the long term, argue the growers.

After all, EU subsidies were introduced on the basis of ensuring security of supply and some beet growers feel the rush to take the money was the easy option which not just Ireland, but Europe may live to regret.

They have a point about the money and are right to demand another season from the sector at the very least.

Other crops are tied into the rotation system involving sugar growing.

And if it goes - and it is near certain that it will - we are facing more than the end of sugar production when we cease to grow the beet crop.

It was the very profitable production of beet that made grain crops feasible for many farmers and without the return from beet those other crops will become uneconomic to grow.

So in the end we are looking at a serious down turn in Irish farming output by what is still the most profitable segment of Irish farming.

At worst, growers in the south are adamant they want to grow beet this year.

They claim it can be done in sufficient quantity, though quota transfer, to ensure the Mallow plant will have the required 1.2 million tonnes throughput to make the project profitable for all sides.

Their dream is that sugar beet could be sustained indefinitely and Europe can be faced down on the issue, but that seems to be a bit of a pipe dream.

As they see it, the IFA’s take-the-money and run attitude has meant the death knell for agriculture’s most profitable arm.

In fact the argument has moved on. We are into a war of words over who gets the biggest whack out of the €145 million earmarked by Brussels for processors.

Greencore late last week debunked the Deloitte & Touche report which claimed farmers were entitled to a significant portion of the money to make up for the loss of income they will suffer over the next 10 years as a result of not growing the beet crop.

It all sounds a bit daft and suggests that in the end bureaucracy has over-ridden common sense and farmers will be laughing all the way to the bank.

Meanwhile, Greencore faces write-offs of up to €150m to pay off the 400 workers being made redundant at Mallow, involving an estimated figure of €25m with the rest to go down the tubes in the write down of the plant.

With an election looming next year farmers look to be on a winner, in the sense that in the end it will be the minister who decides how the booty is distributed and the votes of 3,700 farmers will no doubt be a powerful help in making up her mind what to do with the €145m.

There’ll be no need for a phonecall to head office on that one.