By Stephen Cadogan
There’s a warning from Brussels this week that threats to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy are real this time around, and it‘s essential that farmers come together to work in groups to get the best possible for their produce from the marketplace.
MEP Mairead McGuiness said individual farmers lack power, but farmers working collectively have power to influence, and they provide support to each other by being in groups.
Hers is not the only recent warning that it’s time for farmers to circle the wagons.
That’s how the pioneers who settled in the wild West protected themselves from attack by the Native Americans, and it has since entered everyday speech as meaning to unite in defence of a common interest.
It’s beef farmers who are now particularly looking for protection from attack, led by the Beef Plan movement which is looking to get support from at least 60% of beef farmers to unite behind a workable beef plan or else “continue to be working slaves for a dominant extremely profitable corporate sector”.
They are in the front line of what McGuinness calls “invisible restructuring” — factories renting cattle yards, and tillage land being farmed, not by the farmer, but by the merchant.
It’s significant that farmers coming together to work in groups also now has the blessing of the Government, with Agriculture Minister Michael Creed saying beef farmers should seek to help themselves by forming producer organisations to give them more power in the beef market.
He has said producer organisations in other beef countries, such as France, give farmers a position of greater strength than they have as single farmers, and the legislative framework and approved facilitators are in place to set producer organisations up in Ireland. Beef farmers can also benefit through their groups purchasing inputs at lower prices.
One of Ireland’s existing producer groups is the Boyne Valley Lamb Group, and it was at their annual dinner that European Parliament vice-president Mairead McGuiness questioned the long term sustainability of the food supply chain, and the relentless pressures farmers face.
She complimented the Boyne Valley group for their activities, which also include a social and community aspect, supporting each other and supporting local charities.
Could farmers getting together on a much larger, national scale work?
That is what the Beef Plan movement is looking for, at meetings organised around the country by this voluntary, farmer driven, not-for-profit organisation, aimed at every farmer in the beef sector, from birth to finish.
They say the day is long past when a farmer can sell his beef cattle as a lone agent and maintain a healthy farm business.
They say all the other parties involved in the beef sector over the last 40 years have been so ruthless at looking after their own interests that farmers now question if there is anything left in it for them.
They say others are not prepared to do the hard work of calving cows or rearing calves, yet they can collapse the price of these animals when they are ready to be sold.
According to Beef Plan, a new suckler premium, or maintaining existing CAP payments, will not solve their No 1 problem, a pricing system which will swallow up these benefits, by paying the farmers who keep the animal for up to two and a half years only 20% of the beef retail price.
Farmers are lucky if this 20% covers their costs, which effectively means they work as slaves on their own farms, according to Beef Plan.
They correctly say that beef farming is the lifeblood of rural Ireland, so all in rural Ireland should support their attempt to save it, which is aided by modern communications including social media such as WhatsApp, Facebook, and text messages to get beef farmers communicating with each other (see www.beefplan.ie).