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Thursday 13 December 2018

Ann Fitzgerald: The IFA cannot afford to dismiss the new Beef Plan Movement

'When two tribes go to war, they need to know what their beef is'

Photo: Finbarr O'Rourke
Photo: Finbarr O'Rourke
Former beef specialist Michael Drennan
Ann Fitzgerald

Ann Fitzgerald

Just as the government would be ill advised to ignore the Peter Casey vote, the IFA cannot afford to dismiss the new Beef Plan Movement.

The organisers are well-intentioned and enthusiastic, and their public meetings are attracting a mix of those disillusioned with the beef sector, disaffected from other farm organisations, and young people.

This latter group is particularly significant, given the usual age profile at farm meetings. No doubt the use of social media as a communications tool is significant on this front.

The target is to get 40,000 farmers on board within six to eight months, while the admirable aims of the plan (86 points is far too many) include the delivery of a margin over production and the development of a brand for suckler-bred Irish beef akin to Kerrygold.

Many beef farmers will also identify with the day-to-day issues, such as carcase trim and the four movements Quality Assurance rule.

From the outside, it looks as though these kinds of issues could be readily addressed, if there was enough political pressure or the right political attitude to tackle them.

Something new always brings with it a sense of expectation and hope. Unfortunately, it's hard to see that (I hope I'm wrong) they have the wherewithal to tackle the major underlying issue in the sector: the imbalance of power between the processors and farmers.

The talk is of assembling an army but the main weapon in their arsenal seems to be the withholding of cattle. Factories are now finishing more cattle themselves.

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If the movement is to have an impact, it will need to come up with new ideas, to either deal with factories… or to shift the balance of power.

In that context, there is talk amongst purchaser and producer groups. From what I've heard (and seen on social media) there is some sniping going on about the IFA. In response, the official IFA line seems to be to ignore them and they will go away.

The IFA has long seen itself as having the monopoly on good ideas and has been slow to support those of others, no matter how worthwhile they may be, for fear that it would be seen as a sign of weakness.

However, the IFA is not the enemy here. But nor is the new beef movement. Nor the ICSA.

On the opposite side of the fence, I imagine that processors are rubbing their hands at the unfolding of a scenario which could be described as, to paraphrase a saying, "divided is conquered".

As for the IFA, it has provided a fantastic service to Irish farmers for over 60 years, but is it now facing an identity crisis?

Does it need to ask itself whether one organisation can claim, or even aspire, to represent all sectors, in particular, both beef and dairy farmers, and their increasingly divergent needs?

While the IFA has called for a premium for suckler stock, it is not pushing hard for a reform of the QA grid.

In these pages last week, the former Teagasc specialist who carried out much of the research work on which the grid is based, Michael Drennan, suggested that the price differentials between grades needed to increase significantly.

However, dairy farmers are strongly opposed to this.

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