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Darragh McCullough: Will beef protests be just the start as farmers face penury while rich get richer?

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Anger and frustration: A Beef Plan Movement protestor in Kildare town. Pic: Mark Condren

Anger and frustration: A Beef Plan Movement protestor in Kildare town. Pic: Mark Condren

Anger and frustration: A Beef Plan Movement protestor in Kildare town. Pic: Mark Condren

I was talking to my Polish buyer the other day when the topic of wages came up. The only reason I'm able to sell flowers to Poland is that it's still far too cold for them to have anything resembling a daffodil blooming cheaply and cheerfully out in a field at this time of year. God bless the warm wet Irish climate!

Without the climatic advantage we wouldn't have a hope of competing with Polish growers. My buyer tells me that the minimum wage there is €600 a month, which works out at less than €4 per hour.

He winced when I told him that our minimum wage went up again on February 1 to €10.10 per hour.

This is the fifth increase in the last four years, bringing the cost of employing somebody at that rate up to over €12 per hour when employer's PRSI and holiday pay are factored in.

Wrong

But it would be wrong to expect anyone to work for less than this in 2020 when the price of a cup of coffee is equivalent to at least 15 minutes' labour.

If you're feeling sorry for my flower pickers, spare a thought for your average suckler farmer. Only 11pc of them are making the minimum wage, according to Teagasc's National Farm Survey data.

It's not stated that bluntly in the press release. Instead they explain that for a farm to be 'viable' it needs to be paying the minimum wage along with returning 5pc on the stock and machinery.

Note that 5pc return would barely cover the cost of borrowing for machinery or stock, and it allows nothing for the money tied up in the asset value of the land.

So when the data says that only 11pc of cattle rearing systems are viable you can take it that 89pc of suckler farmers aren't earning a minimum wage for their time spent farming.

And if the minimum wage is increasing and returns in beef are static or falling, more and more cattle farms will be pushed into the unviable bracket.

This is a stark backdrop to a recent Oxfam report on the super-wealthy of the world, which listed 17 Irish billionaires - among them the beef processing kingpins, the Goodmans, who have seen their wealth quadruple in the last decade to make them the fourth wealthiest family in Ireland.

Larry Goodman's business empire worth €2.6bn has been built on the profits accumulated from the beef sector.

The economists among you will point out that wealth and income aren't the same thing, but even on a strict income basis, the estimated €170m profit reported by Goodman's in 2018 is still a million miles away from the minimum wage. And it's an infinitely better return on the assets than any than beef farm I've been on.

Is it just me that gets annoyed by the fact that the disparity in returns is so vast that the suppliers in the sector - the farmers - are now totally dependent on State subsidies to keep them afloat?

Exacerbating the situation is the bonkers tax system that the world has sleep-walked its way into.

Warren Buffett was one of the first billionaires to openly admit that he is often taxed at a lower rate than the secretaries who work for him.

Part of the reason for this is that the world's richest people are able to afford to squirrel away wealth in labyrinthine off-shore tax havens.

This allows the gap between the haves and the have-nots to grow to the point where the planet's 2,153 billionaires have more than the combined wealth of 4,600,000,000 of the global population.

In an era when we are all supposed to be aiming for sustainability, this growing inequality is going to blow up in everybody's face sooner rather than later.

The protests by frustrated and disheartened Irish beef farmers were only a localised warm-up act when you think of the big picture.

Although I'm convinced that their protests were totally misdirected, I entirely empathise with the deep-seated resentment welling up in farmers who feel they are heading for penury in order to feather the beds of the ultra-wealthy.

At the rate they are going, they might even be better off picking daffodils.

Indo Farming