The decision by the Department of Agriculture to designate the Beef Plant Movement, a group of protesting farmers, as as a “producer organisation” is a welcome development in the ongoing beef crisis.
It means that representatives of farmers will be able to negotiate directly with meat factories to determine the price received for cattle.
Ultimately, the development could mean that for the first time farmers, rather than factories, can set the price at which cattle are sold into meat plants.
Whether that is what happens in practice is another matter. Over the past few months, there has been an absence of trust between both sides in the dispute.
Up to now, there has been little more than a war of words between meat plants and those who supply them. On the one hand, farmers groups have taken to barricading processing plants and picketing retailers.
On the other, there has been little sign of restraint shown by the beef processors who have used their deep pockets to bring the law to bear on their behalf by seeking — and being granted — High Court injunctions against the blockaders.
Up to now, the beef processors held all the cards, with enough money to force the farmers into submission.
The meat processors have always been the dominant party when negotiating with farmers which meant that, on the face of it, they should win, but that may have proved to have been a miscalculation.
There are some farmers who are actually losing money in beef cattle because they receive so little reward for their efforts.
Teagasc figures show that profitability starts at around €4.50 a kilo, while many farmers are getting as little as €3.45. That means that efforts by the beef processors to shut them down may have actually helped some farmers stem their losses and stabilise their finances.
As Baltasar Gracián, the 17th-century Spanish Jesuit and philosopher put it: “Never contend with a man who has nothing to lose.”
The beef barons have not just contending with men and women with nothing to lose but also provoking them by using the courts as a cudgel while refusing to negotiate in the face of persistent blockades.
The latest development is welcome for a number of reasons, not least of which is that it could save hundreds, if not thousands, of jobs not just on farms but in the factories.
It is time for the beef processors to realise that they need farmers as much as farmers need them. If beef farmers cannot make a living, neither can the meat industry.
While factories around the country were forced to cease production and lay off workers, we entered into the blame game.
Cormac Healy, senior director of Meat Industry Ireland, said it was not the industry that had forced the closure of factories but the blockades.
That may be the truth, but it is not the whole truth. Farmers have been blockading meat processing plants around the country since late July in protest over the pittance they receive for their cattle.
Hopefully, with this breakthrough, that will no longer be the case. It is now time for common sense to prevail on all sides.