Special Report: Ploughing Championships - Beef producer postpones investment as 'direct result of ongoing illegal blockades'

Special Report: Ploughing Championships - Beef producer postpones investment as 'direct result of ongoing illegal blockades'
The National Ploughing Championships to get underway in Co Carlow. The National Ploughing Championships begin today in Co Carlow. The three-day event is the biggest outdoor event in Europe. Around 250,000 visitors are expected in Ballintrane in Carlow over the next few days. Pic Stephen Collins/Collins Photos.

A large beef producer has revealed it has “indefinitely postponed” a multi-million euro investment in one of its beef plants as a direct result of the ongoing protests over cattle prices.

Kepak’s announcement last night came as protesters were urged to call off the demonstrations at factory gates that has hit beef production, with claims the ongoing pickets are causing ‘self harm’ to the industry.

In a strongly-worded statement, the company accused protesters of creating ‘chaos’ in the beef industry and that as a result it “regrets to confirm that it has indefinitely postponed a planned and publicly announced, major €6.5m investment at its Clare site in Drumquin as a direct result of the ongoing illegal blockades”.

It said the Clare plant has been the most severely affected by ongoing blockades, with all processing “suspended there effectively since 2 August”.

“Kepak is immensely grateful for the support of its loyal staff, customers and farmer suppliers who have been harshly impacted by the illegal and intimidating behaviour of protesters, many of whom are not known as suppliers to Kepak Clare,” the statement read.

“Kepak have now laid off 1,400 people including all staff at Kepak Clare. Kepak is endeavouring to provide our colleagues with every support and assistance during this difficult time.

“It is now evident that self-appointed protesters are creating chaos in the Irish beef industry with little regard for its long-term future.”

Kepak claimed the weak market prices for beef was an EU-wide challenge that “will not be resolved by illegal blockades of Irish meat processors”.

“The short-term hardship and financial stress imposed on staff and farmers, exacerbated by an overhang of factory ready stock, arising from the illegal blockades, is extreme and indiscriminate,” Kepak said.

“Longer term, more hardship is envisaged as some hard-won EU customers have already switched to sourcing their supply of beef from other countries.

“Loyal customers are now beginning to question the reliability of the Irish beef sector as a dependable supplier.

On two occasions, negotiations and agreements have been spurned in favour of intimidation and lawlessness by a cohort with little regard for the havoc being caused. It is critical that blockades are lifted to allow farmers and the industry to resume normal activity before it suffers irreparable damage and losses.

Tánaiste Simon Coveney, a former agriculture minister, yesterday added his voice to the chorus of pleas to farmers to allow production to resume at plants, and warned that the crisis is now at ‘tipping point’.

The Tánaiste’s intervention echoed earlier remarks from Agriculture Minister Michael Creed, who again asked protesters to consider the deal struck between farming organisations and producers over the weekend.

“I appeal to farmers, to the silent majority. We are at a critical point. We are now witnessing real self harm to our beef industry,” Mr Creed told RTE Radio 1’s Morning Ireland.

Speaking on the same station, Siptu agri sector representative Terry Bryan said the industry was looking at “self-destruction” if the blockades continue.

Mr Bryan said thousands have been laid off from factories, and warned some non-EU workers in the meat processing plants who have been laid off this week will not be eligible for social welfare payments.

He said the union is calling on the Government to establish an additional support fund for workers which should be contributed to by employers, he told the Today with Sean O’Rourke .

“There needs to be calm heads, there needs to be cool heads,” said Mr Bryan. “Examine the proposals in detail. Our members are victims in this, they feel no one is thinking of them.”

Screaming teens and big machines at celebration of the sod

By Noel Baker

Lauren Delaney, Loreto Secondary School, Kilkenny, takes a selfie with Love Island winner Greg O’Shea at the Grá Island contest held in the National Dairy Council’s tent. Picture: Robbie Reynolds
Lauren Delaney, Loreto Secondary School, Kilkenny, takes a selfie with Love Island winner Greg O’Shea at the Grá Island contest held in the National Dairy Council’s tent. Picture: Robbie Reynolds

Farmers never retire, the ploughing never gets old, but yesterday there was something of a generation gap in Fenagh. Essentially, everyone under the age of 20 uttered these very words: “So, did you see Greg?”

Alright, maybe not everyone, and yes, we did see Greg, that being Greg O’Shea, newly-crowned Love Island champ and a prime example of Irish beef.

He was peering out from under a cloth cap in something called “Grá Island” alongside another star turn, Marty Morrissey. In front of them stood leagues of screaming teens. Maybe this would have happened if The Beatles had visited the ploughing back in the ‘60Sixties.

Elsewhere, the sun shone and there were fewer wellies were on display than usual with the sun beaming down on the 102,500 visitors descending on this part of Co Carlow.

The organisers of the Championships said that this year’s key theme is “sustainability”, primarily in reference to initiatives such as the rollout of drink bottles using 100% recycled PET (plastic). But it is the sustainability of farming — in general, because of issues such as Brexit — and a beef sector currently in the throes of crisis that occupied the minds of many in attendance.

The Irish Examiner/ICMSA annual opinion poll showed Brexit fears uppermost in the minds of farmers, around half of whom would back Government concessions on the border backstop if it helped shore up Irish agriculture.

At a panel discussion in the Brexit Hub, Minister for European Affairs, Helen McEntee, Minister of State in the Department of Housing, Damien English, and Minister of State in the Department of Rural & Community Development, Sean Canney were trying to inject a bit of positivity amid any Brexit blues.

English, en flique in suit and work boots, said many arrangements had already been agreed to ensure life continued after October 31, while McEntee said: “I understand our farmers are in a difficult position at the moment and especially our beef sector. But for us, any kind of concession on the no-deal, essentially it doesn’t protect the sector, it just creates more uncertainty and it just removes any legal certainty that they would have.

“The backstop is there to protect the all-Island economy, but also their markets and Ireland’s ability to access the rest of Europe.”

She said “we have to stand our ground”.

That is also what many protesters are continuing to do outside the gates of meat factories around the country. President Michael D Higgins referred to the crisis in his speech, but while there had been an expectation of some sort of protest here, yesterday was not the day for it.

There is simply too much to do and see across the sprawling site, and as the President said, the ploughing is a chance to rekindle old friendships and create new ones.

There can sometimes be a patronising tone used in relation to farmers and the rural community, a kind of pat-them-on-the head aspect to things, but this is also the one week of the year when the focus of the nation turns back to the sod and the crops and the machinery, the kicking of tyres on equipment, the sight of men tugging on cigarettes like they’re holding a whistle, the occasional novelty cowboy hat with strings attached.

Anna May McHugh, the managing director of the National Ploughing Championships, spoke of cultivating the land as “a passion”.

President Higgins spoke of farming’s legacy and its contribution. The sun shone and the people flooded across this unique campus, another massive day out. We’re back to the subject of Grá Island, and let’s be honest — it’s not a bad place to be.

Plastics ban backing but electric cars enthusiasm stalls

By Noel Baker

Young Cillian Molloy, Wicklow, ready with the spanner as Martin Austin looks after horses Womble and Tom during their U40 horse class on the opening day of this year’s National Ploughing Championships in Fenagh. Picture: Dan Linehan.
Young Cillian Molloy, Wicklow, ready with the spanner as Martin Austin looks after horses Womble and Tom during their U40 horse class on the opening day of this year’s National Ploughing Championships in Fenagh. Picture: Dan Linehan.

Three-quarters of farmers and farm families would back a ban on single-use plastics to help the environment, but a much smaller percentage are willing to pay higher green taxes or switch to an electric car.

Responses from face-to-face questioning show 75% believe the Government should ban single-use plastics, with 9% opposed.

While that proposal receives strong backing, farmers and their families are less sure when it comes to electric cars or paying higher taxes aimed at cutting harmful emissions.

Just 23% of respondents said they were willing to pay higher levies or taxes to help reduce carbon emissions. Some 58% disagreed, including 39% who strongly disagreed, while around one in five respondents had no view either way.

Similarly, 27% agreed either strongly or slightly that they would consider going electric the next time they change car, compared with 54% who disagreed, including 34% who strongly disagreed. Again, around a fifth of respondents were ambivalent about the issue.

Regarding a ban on single-use plastics, perhaps surprisingly, the lowest level of support was among those in the 35 and under age group (65%); 82% of 55 to 64-year-olds were in favour of a ban.

Those aged under 35 were more likely to consider buying an electric car in future (31%), while support for paying higher taxes or levies to protect the environment was highest among tillage farmers (36%) and lowest among small farmers (18%).

Dr Paul Deane, research fellow at MaREI, the Environmental Research Institute at UCC, said the issue of plastics might have grabbed public attention but transport issues were a bigger concern.

“There is a huge level of awareness around single-use plastics today. This is good but in terms of climate change, it is a much smaller problem for Ireland,” he said.

“Emissions from road transport are far more significant and damaging to our health and environment. One of the main reasons Ireland is not on track to meet emissions targets is the lack of action of sustainable transport. A lot more needs to be done here and raising the carbon tax is one of many unpopular measures required.

Today electric vehicles are more suited to urban areas where infrastructure is better and trips are shorter. EVs typically replace petrol cars and are unlikely to make significant inroads into rural communities in the near term.

“The cost of EVs must come down significantly before sales numbers go up in rural Ireland.”The Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI) said research carried out at the end of last year showed that 70% of respondents would consider buying an electric car instead of a petrol or diesel car - up from 41% of respondents in the previous year.

“Interestingly this result is paralleled by the doubling in size of the number of electric vehicles sold in Ireland over the last two years,” a SEAI spokesperson said.

“In 2018, 2% of new cars were electric and we estimate in 2019 this number will increase to 5%.“We generally expect higher levels of interest in urban, suburban or commuter belt areas where daily distances travelled are within the typical battery range of an electric car.

"We expect that as the technology continues to rapidly improve, range will increase and electric cars will increasingly become an option for more and more people including rural dwellers.”

Fewer farmers taking steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions

By Noel Baker

Aoibheann Doyle, with Aoife Holohan, Beacon Research Centre, with the molecular structure of biodegradable plastics. Picture: Patrick Browne
Aoibheann Doyle, with Aoife Holohan, Beacon Research Centre, with the molecular structure of biodegradable plastics. Picture: Patrick Browne

There has been a fall in the number of farmers who say they have implemented measures on their land to reduce agricultural greenhouse gas emissions and in the percentage of those who believe farming contributes negatively to climate change.

One in four of those polled said they don’t believe in climate change while 40% said the Government is doing enough to tackle the problem. Just one one third of farmers said they would plant more grant-aided forestry to mitigate the effects of climate change.

The latest Irish Examiner/ICMSA opinion poll of more than 500 rural dwellers found:n 54% said they had implemented measures on their farm to reduce agricultural greenhouse gas emissions which is down around 6% compared with findings in the previous two years.

One in four farmers are still climate-change deniers, a similar percentage to that in the 2018 poll, while 58% said they did believe in climate change, a slight fall compared with the finding from a year ago.

32% said they would plant more grant-aided forestry for climate mitigation, against 40% who said they would not. Half of those strongly disagreed;n 40% believe the Government is doing enough to combat climate change, just 9% strongly agree, while 41% disagree, including 17% who strongly disagree.

The potential effects of climate change have arguably become more marked in recent years with Hurricane Ophelia, Storm Emma and the drought of summer 2018.

Paul Deane of the Environmental Research Institute at UCC said Irish agricultural would need to step up to meet consumer demand for more sustainably-farmed products.

Belief or acceptance in climate change is not a necessary prerequisite for action. Most governments accept climate change to be real but are not doing much about it.

However, consumers are demanding more environmentally sustainable food. In Europe, large co-ops like Arla in Denmark are already planning for low carbon and even zero-carbon milk .

Consumers are willing to pay more for sustainable farmed products and Ireland will have to come on board or risk being left behind,” he said.

Beef crisis: President calls for protection of producers

By Noel Baker

President of Ireland Michael D. Higgins and his wife Sabina with ploughman Sean Treacy from Carlow at the opening day of this year’s National Ploughing Championships in Ballintrane, Fenagh, Co. Carlow. Picture Dan Linehan.
President of Ireland Michael D. Higgins and his wife Sabina with ploughman Sean Treacy from Carlow at the opening day of this year’s National Ploughing Championships in Ballintrane, Fenagh, Co. Carlow. Picture Dan Linehan.

President Michael D Higgins has waded into the beef crisis by telling crowds on the first day of the National Ploughing Championships in Co Carlow that there needed to be more transparency in the price relationship between producers and farmers.

As tens of thousands of people descended on Fenagh for the opening day of this year’s event, protests continued at the gates of meat factories around the country amid a continuing impasse over the issue of base price.

Officially opening the Championships, the President said he was concerned about the vulnerability of rural producers and suggested the time was right for greater clarity on how the price paid by the consumer for food is divided, stating “when you know more you can make good decisions”.

“All our wishes go to those who want to see a future for the family farm,” he said. “And those who are trying to solve things, I wish them every success.

If it can’t be solved by what is on offer, it’s a beginning and beginnings are important, but more importantly, I hope at the end of the ploughing you will all know the importance of how, in fact the contribution is divided between the agent of production, the farmer, the processor, and the retailer.

"That everybody should know more, and when you know more you can make good decisions. So that is another advantage of the ploughing this year.”

He told the crowd and invited guests, among them the Garda Commissioner Drew Harris, that it should not be a case of people “paying lip service to farming” and that instead farming and farmers needed to be protected, adding: “No one is too far from the land”. He also referred to “those who do the work, who are entitled to their fair share”.

Later, he also referred to “a person who may have only one purchaser”.

“I have been concerned about the vulnerability of the rural producer and the person who in fact... really needs protection, they need transparency, protection and a fair system,” he said.

“The word ‘fair’ was there in the campaign for fair rent, so let us now have fair produce, fair treatment for everybody involved and let’s move on from that. The best way to do that, maybe what is on offer may not be the perfect resolution, but let’s make it the best beginning and build.”

President Higgins also referred to the challenges of climate change and the unpredictability of weather, praising those involved in the GLAS scheme, adding: “The evidence is there that Irish farming is responding to these challenges and Irish farming, in cooperation with the others who are responding to climate change and sustainability, can do it.”

He challenged farmers to be at the head of the race regarding sustainability, biodiversity and climate change and stressed the importance of family farming, stating that it was “keeping a way of life alive” as well as making a contribution to the public good. He said people in rural Ireland must enjoy “equal citizenship” and that people must be prepared to pay for services in rural Ireland to ensure that can take place.

He said the Ploughing was a chance for rural and urban people to come together and celebrate a shared Irishness.

Coveney popular, but rating for Ross sinks

By Elaine Loughlin

Special Report: Ploughing Championships - Beef producer postpones investment as 'direct result of ongoing illegal blockades'

Tánaiste Simon Coveney is the most popular minister, while Transport Minister Shane Ross scores worst in the approval ratings among farmer-dwelling adults, a new poll has revealed.

The annual Irish Examiner/ICMSA farming survey reveals that the Minister for Foreign Affairs enjoys a clear lead on his Cabinet colleagues with an average approval rating of 5.44 out of 10.

His nearest competition colleague in Government is Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe, who scored an average of 4.49.

Both men have seen their approval rating increase in the past year, as has Charlie Flanagan (Justice), Richard Bruton (Communications), and for Michael Ring (Rural Affairs).

While awareness of the jobs Simon Harris (Health) and Michael Creed (Agriculture) do is above average, their satisfaction ratings are below average.

Mr Harris, who has come under continued pressure in the past 12 months due to the trolley crisis, the overspend on the National Children’s Hospital, the CervicalCheck scandal, and rising outpatient waiting lists, was rated 3.69 out of 10, down from 4.32 in 2018.

The Irish Examiner poll also revealed that 90% of farmers are concerned over the impact of Brexit, and many believe they have been left in the dark on plans for a no-deal.

Coupled with this is the ongoing disquiet over beef prices, which has led to months of protests, including some at the National Ploughing Championships in Co Carlow yesterday.

Mr Creed received an overall score of 3.8, but was rated more highly by dairy farmers than by others.

Those in the dairy sector scored the minister for agriculture an average of 4.14 out of 10, compared to an approval rating of 3.65 among livestock farmers.

Transport minister Shane Ross saw a notable decline in his approval rating. He scored worst of all members of the Cabinet and received an average approval rating of just 2.8 out of 10.

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