Beef industry is being eaten alive by a confluence of tough events

Beef industry is being eaten alive by a confluence of tough events
Beef farmers set up their banners on their protest outside the Kepak plant in Watergrasshill, Co Cork, this month. Picture: Larry Cummins

The chant on the picket lines at beef factories across the country is: “It’s time to go to the ploughing: It’s time to bring them down.”

Last weekend, there was a second attempt at a deal that would stick on beef prices. It dissolved as it left the negotiating room.

Yesterday, the National Ploughing Championships began inBallintrane, Co Carlow. That showcase event is overshadowed by thousands of worker layoffs in factories, a beef industry in stasis for more than six weeks, and no sign of resolution. Farm politics on the picket line have splintered, and splintered again.

The danger is of major beef contracts abroad being lost at exactly the time of year that cattle are coming in off grass. If beef farmers think things won’t get worse, they are in for a rude awakening.

There are several contexts. One is that late-summer skirmishing about the price of beef is, like the Ploughing Championships, to be expected. Another is that the prospect of Brexit — and the slide in sterling — has driven down prices.

What was delivered last Sunday was increased bonuses for younger, quality animals, on top of a base price of €3.50 per kg. But the base isn’t moving and depressed markets won’t bear an increase.

Tastes are changing, and steak is no longer the best meal money can buy. Red meat, including beef, is challenged by new lifestyles. You can’t pay what the market won’t bear, and you can’t force people to buy what they don’t want to eat.

The political fallout is immense for farm politics. There were seven farm organisations in the room last weekend: The Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA), Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers’ Association (ICMSA), Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmers’ Association (ICSA), Macra na Feirme, Irish Natura and Hill Farmers’ Association (INHFA), Beef Plan Movement, and the Independent Farmers’ Group.

It’s a quagmire, and a devastating comedown for the once-feared, but respected regiment of farm politics. It is not just multiplying numbers of organisations, and the divisions between them; it is that they emerge as splinter groups dissatisfied with the organisation they have left behind. Full of anger and determination, they set out with expectations that cannot be delivered.

Lack of delivery leads to further fragmentation.

The ultimate test of credibility has been failed. They can’t deliver for the people for whom they purport to speak. Leaders must have followers. Farm leaders are now diminished and squabbling among themselves.

They lack the confidence of their own community.

The diminution of the once-mighty IFA follows its own annus horribilis in 2015.

Then, a crisis over accountability and remuneration to its executive was deeply damaging. It happened in a wider cultural context of similar crises across Irish institutions.

Confidence has never been recovered, and a grand coalition of different farm interests loosened and then fragmented.

The IFA, in its heyday, was an amalgam off different sectors, including beet, cereals, pigs, cattle, and dairy. The beet is gone, but IFA’s strength was in coalescing not only different sectors, but different classes, too.

It included large farmers and small ones. That tension was always challenging. It was also partially geographical and political. The smaller farmer was in the West. The big men were in Leinster and Munster.

The IFA core was always Fine Gael. Fianna Fáil made up the numbers, but good land was generally the prerogative of older money.

It’s a detail now, but the big farm event was once the Spring Show, hosted by the Royal Dublin Society. That was not just a venue in Ballsbridge; it was socially the nexus of real power in farm politics.

It is 53 years since farmers left Bantry and marched to Dublin, joined by more than 30,000 other farmers, demanding negotiating rights with government.

On arrival, the then Minister for Agriculture, Charles Haughey, refused to meet with the then National Famers’ Organisation (which afterward became the IFA).

Power on the ground overcame that prejudice. Decades in which farmer power was institutionalised and deepened followed. From the late 1980s, famers were a pillar of social partnership and were effectively part of a quasi-unelected government.

As an aside, the lack of reflection among farmers on their contribution to the ruin of the country, on the runaway train that was social partnership, makes for wry amusement. But that was then.

Now, dairy farming is booming, pigs have recovered on the back of swine flu in other territories, and if cereal prices look like falling back off the excellent returns of last year, good yields will help cushion the fall.

Beef is different. It’s beset by multiple issues and it’s a way of life that, for many, doesn’t have a future. Part of the anger is because that is understood. Children are not following their parents, who will die without successors. When farmers marched on Dublin in 1966, it was an era in farming summed up in the issues of ‘briars, bullocks, and bachelors.’

Times have changed, but, eerily, in beef, it is back to the future.

The pickets have become feral. Interlopers, including republican dissidents and anti-eviction activists, are opportunistically fomenting trouble. Thousands of industry workers, with mortgages and children, are now out of work.

Importantly, the vast majority of beef farmers have never been on a picket. The next move is theirs and it is going to be very important. If they cannot, or will not, move their cattle into the processing factories, several things will happen. They must find fodder and the money to pay for it.

They must pay, in the hope that, eventually, there will be a factory to bring their beasts to, for some price. But that is not certain. About 6% of beef produced here ends up on our own shop shelves. About 3% goes into services, including catering. More than 90% must be exported, at any price. Major contracts abroad are now hanging in the balance.

Beef for which there is no boat is not an asset; it’s an appalling liability. It could be a self-made Brexit before the thing itself. And on farms, if cattle aren’t processed, those farmers won’t buy weanlings and the downward cycle continues.

Beef farmers only have hard choices, and many have no future. The WhatsApp organisations that sprang up to protest have no capacity to magic up solutions.

They cannot even command the picket they were sent up to Dublin to represent.

This event is a watershed. It is the end of the era of powerful farm leaders, which began in 1966. That is not entirely a good thing.

But it does fully reflect in farming what has long been reality elsewhere. Authoritative bodies are diminished. Single-issue campaigns are sometimes remarkably successful.

Protest is ever easier, and easy to understand. But telling people what they need to know, rather than what they want to hear, is a scarce commodity.

Solutions, which require time and painstaking work, are scarcer still.

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