Martin Coughlan: Problems multiplying for farmers after a year of division
It was a year of conflict and strife, dominated by the beef protests. Years of frustration over market returns to farmers finally came to a head, with the resulting farmer action being manipulated by the processing sector to the point where prices stagnated at the factory gate for the last three months of the year.
Looming over the sector throughout 2019 was uncertainty around the future of trade with the UK as Brexit was kicked down the road twice. And here we are still awaiting the latest Brexit deadline and its consequences at the end of this month.
The year began with bullocks selling for around €3.75/kg, with heifers 10c/kg better. By mid-May bullocks had reached the magic €4/kg mark, but they slipped back to €3.50-3.60/kg by mid-July.
Other farming organisations had not been idle, however. Though intense lobbying it was announced on May 16 that the EU had agreed a €50m retrospective aid package for beef finishers. Another €50m was added by the Irish exchequer.
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This combined €100m became the BEAM scheme (Beef Exceptional Aid Measure) and targeted compensation to those who had slaughtered cattle between September 24, 2018 and May 12, 2019.
Was this at last an acknowledgment by the powers that be that the system of beef finishing in Ireland was broken? Or was it, as some suggested, purely a political stroke just ahead of the EU and local elections due on May 24?
By the middle of the year the majority of factory prices were worse than they had been during that September to May period.
The failure of the established farm organisations to recognise the extent of the pent-up anger among cattle farmers - as Irish prices remained in the doldrums during the summer, at a time when world beef prices were moving in a positive direction - saw the fledgling Beef Plan Movement (BPM) take centre stage as it discovered the power of social media through its WhatApp group.
Adding further fuel to this tinder-box was the EU's agreement to allow a further 99,000 tonnes of beef from South America into Europe under the Mercosur deal.
By mid-July those at the head of the BPM were speaking openly about direct farmer action.
That action duly began on July 28 with various meat plants across the country being picketed by BPM members. What began as a picket rapidly escalated into a full-scale blockade.
Beef Plan soon removed itself from direct action as the factories issued legal proceedings but the blockades spread, with individual farmers and assorted groups taking their place.
The realities of militant action were brought home to all when a number of protestors were hospitalised early on. Talks between all sides concluded on August 13, with a number of concessions agreed on. These included additional bonus and grid payments, with promises made that various reviews on aspects of the trade would be put in train plus the establishment of a beef task force.
The factories duly put in place those agreed extra payments, but then from the finishers' perspective, just as they believed normality was about to resume the wheels began to come off the wagon again.
After 10 days the protestors were back at the factory gates as it became clear that some elements remained dissatisfied.
The blockades intensified to the point that within four weeks the national kill was reduced from 30,300 to just over 12,000. A truce was eventually called and all protests were stood down by the end of September.
As the protests were stood down, however, it became obvious that open conflict between those with cattle fit to kill and those protesting had only been narrowly avoided. It was estimated that the protest had built up a backlog of an 90,000-100,000 cattle in the system, and it was this backlog that dominated factory pricing and the trade for the remainder of the year.
While price is always an issue, not being able to get your stock away in good order and at a time of your choosing created huge stress among finishers, not to mention additional costs as the protests had progressed.
And although all plants resumed operations, with the national kill averaging close to 39,000 per week for the remainder of the year, the stress to finishers - especially those with bulls - caused by those extra numbers lingered for months.
So, despite world beef prices rocketing as the Chinese drove the market in the second half of the year, Irish processors had little problem maintaining their hold over the business due to those extra numbers.
The year ended with a two-day tractor protest in Dublin organised by individual farmers - again the established organisations distanced themselves from such actions.
What does/did it all mean?
As the protests evolved, the divisions between the various farming links in the production chain became apparent.
While the protestors initially targeted better factory prices, other associated issues such as the four movement and 70-day retention rules also came to the fore and caused individual interests to dominate, as those not directly involved in finishing sacrificed the livelihoods of their neighbours.
The Beef Plan Movement fragmented, with a number of smaller bodies emerging.
The IFA, ICMSA and ICSA were largely sidelined throughout but remain significant players.
Many of those who protested were smaller or part-time farmers with limited interest in the realities of what long-term factory closure could mean for those who depend 100pc on beef farming for an income.
While the Government touts Ireland's economic recovery as among the best in Europe, 2019 showed that on the beef side of Irish farming, a huge section of rural Ireland believes it has been left behind.
While you can argue the issue is about market returns, the reality is that the now-collapsing suckler sector has always been dependent on direct EU aid. It was this aid that allowed the sector to expand from its base in the 1980s.
The reality is that a whole generation of farmers believe their life's work has been taken from them because the EU and successive Irish governments chose not to link those payments to farming inflation.
To those farmers, they entered an agreement with the government of the day through those EU subsidies to provide a better-quality product to allow the whole industry expand into new markets. Until the whole industry sees those benefits I believe the EU has a responsibility way beyond the pitiful €50m it threw from the table back in May.
And all the time the vegan movement continues to grow.
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