‘If there isn’t something done now, there won’t be beef farmers’

‘If there isn’t something done now, there won’t be beef farmers’
Beef farmers and their supporters outside the ABP Ireland Bandon plant, Kilbrogan, Bandon, Co Cork, as they take part in the Beef Plan Movement Cork protest. Pictures: Jim Coughlan

Trucks and cars beep their horns in solidarity as they glance past the ABP Food Group factory north of Bandon — and the makeshift camp that is now nearly two weeks old.

Around two dozen protesters and Mike the Jack Russell either walk in circles at the entrance to the factory or take breathers on bales of hay dotted around a campfire in a metal barrel.

Ask any of them what proved to be the final straw that pushed them to join the Beef Plan Movement, and you’re likely to get three different answers: Brexit concerns, the Mercosur deal, and Trump’s EU beef agreement all feature in discussions.

What is universal, however, is the feeling that beef farmers are being squeezed out by producers and retailers, and that their livelihoods aren’t sustainable.

There is a sense that this grassroots-driven movement has filled a vacuum left by inaction and a lack of representation by more established agriculture bodies and politicians.

Helen O’Sullivan, secretary of the local branch of the movement, has been at the picket on-and-off for more than 11 days, sleeping overnight in her Jeep at times.

“To be honest, I think we’re giving the people a bit of hope, you know, I think they’ve lost faith for the last while, because of getting hit after hit after hit, and they just can’t take any more. I can understand where they’re coming from, because I’m a beef farmer myself.

“I think we’re giving this little glimmer of hope, the Beef Plan Movement, that we might be able to do something for them, because we seem to be the only kind of farm organisation that’s out here at the moment, doing something,” she said.

She said there is a sense that momentum is growing asmembership numbers swell among farmers and those outside the industry seeking to express solidarity.

Membership costs €10, which goes towards the picket costs such as poster printing. All involved are volunteering their time.

“It’s great to see the numbers coming, momentum is really gathering now as well,” said Ms O’Sullivan.

People are really rolling in behind us and it’s fantastic. It’s like as if we’ve nearly given them a new lease of life, that we might be able to give them that bit of hope.

"I mean, it’d be great if we can get some of these anti-competitive practices abolished that are putting so much pressure on the farmers, both financially and mentally. All we’re looking for here is a cost of production and a small margin,” she said.

“It’s very difficult because, I mean, the cost of production has spiralled, but what we’re getting for meat has hit rock bottom.

“€3.45 a kg is way below production costs, it costs us roughly around €5.38 to produce, and then you have all the other costs, you have your own labour that you’re not getting paid for. There was analysis done by Teagasc, and it’s working out that we’re only getting €4 an hour, and that’s not including weekends, and we don’t get holidays, we don’t get bank holidays either. So it’s really way below the minimum wage. It’s just not good enough,” she said.

“Who is working for €4 an hour?” asks Ger Dineen, vice-chair of the local movement.

Ger Dineen, Kilnamartyra, Co Cork, with a message about beef prices.
Ger Dineen, Kilnamartyra, Co Cork, with a message about beef prices.

“That was when the price was around €3.70. The price now is going down to €3.40. So that’s going down again. So what do you expect fellas to do?”

The recent announcement of a €100m Brexit fund for beef farmers has done little to quell Ger’s sense of anger. He believes that, when broken down, the fund will amount to roughly 60 cent for every hour of the average farmer’s time.

“So what Michael Creed has actually done, increase our income from €4 an hour to €4.60 an hour which he thinks is great, and it’s solved. It’s less than half the minimum wage. What’s after happening now is there’s a price collapse. The factories want to drive it down. So we have less money again, so every animal we send into the factory, we are losing between €150 and €200. It’s not sustainable,” he said.

Brendan Marshall sells machinery but has joined the picket to support beef farmers, many of whom are his customers.

“There was a man here last night who got Ir£2,200 in 1990 for bullocks finished, three years old — what are they making today?”

Ger says €1,500 “would be a good price”.

“We’re getting less now than what we’re getting 30 years ago, it’s shocking. We had 40% of the take of the animal back then. Now, it’s down to 18%.

“The other thing which people forget and I realised when I came in here is how many people we are employing. This place is hopping with trucks, fitters, electricians, engineers — that place?” he asks, pointing at the co-op across the road.

Protesters outside the ABP Ireland Bandon plant.
Protesters outside the ABP Ireland Bandon plant.

“All supported by farmers. What actually will happen is the whole thing will shut down, I think the beef industry is worth around €2bn? This is all going to die. If we can’t make a margin there’s no young fella going to come into it.

“I’ve two young fellas at home now, and we’re all saying we’re going to kick our young fellas out the door because we don’t want them to be screwed. I worked off-farm for 18 years. I went back full-time farming and it was a bad decision.”

Helen says the reality is stark.

For the younger generation, if there isn’t something done now, there won’t be beef farmers.

“I mean, if you do your job inside in town, let it be an accountant or let it be a builder, a carpenter, you’re guaranteed your wage at the end of the week.

“Whereas here, you’re depending on weather, you’re depending on costs, what you’re going to get from the factories. You don’t know what you are going to get until that animal has gone in, and you can’t predict for next year either. Because you don’t know how much you are going to get.

“Definitely, if things keep going the way they are, beef farmers will become a thing of the past without a doubt,” she said.

Helen admits she has been disappointed to see some people cross their picket line.

“I think what needs to happen here is that farmers need to unite and stand together if we want change. Because at the end of the day, it’s down to people power.”

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