Farmers left with very little to show for protests


Roscommon Mart Photo Brian Farrell
Roscommon Mart Photo Brian Farrell
Minister for Agriculture Michael Creed
Ciaran Moran

Ciaran Moran

As dawn broke after the third and final day of the beef crisis talks, farmers were left with the harsh reality of their position in the industry.

They are the price takers, and price takers they shall remain for the foreseeable future.

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Over the extended talks, progress was made on some initiatives aimed at improving transparency along the supply chain and improving communication between industry and farmers.

However, farm organisations have said there will be disappointment if there is no increase in beef prices.

Remember, these talks took place on the precondition that price would not be discussed, even though it was the price farmers are receiving for their produce that led them to picket outside factories for two weeks.

Issues such as cattle age restrictions, promotional initiatives for the beef sector and market transparency initiatives were important - but very much secondary to farmers.

How they will stomach the prospect that those two weeks' worth of protests may have been for very little remains to be seen.

In an early morning statement yesterday, Minister for Agriculture Michael Creed said the talks concluded successfully.

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Success for who, though, is definitely open to debate - and the true meaning of Mr Creed's statement will take a little longer to determine.

The Meat Processors said they were pleased that what they called a "wide-ranging agreement" had been reached.

Farmers, however, seem less than pleased.

Irish Cattle & Sheep Farmers' Association president Edmond Phelan highlighted the detail that no additional money will be put in farmers' pockets as a result of the beef talks.

"Our hands were tied regarding price from the outset," he said.

"We could negotiate, but not on price, and when price is the only thing that really matters, that was problematic."

Eoin Donnelly of the Beef Plan movement said that while there was some progress made on smaller issues, there were still a lot of challenges.

That's an understatement.

The Beef Plan, which became a nationwide farming campaign over the poor prices beef farmers are receiving from processors, will now go back to its grassroots members and see what they think.

They said before the talks that if they were not happy with progress they would walk out and return to their protests.

That came after the legal threats from meat factories, saying that the farmers were carrying out illegal blockades.

One wonders if the damage was done even before those negotiating on behalf of the farmers went into the room to do so.

After all, these talks were a non-event once the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission reminded farmers that talk about beef prices must be off the table.

There seems to be little regard for the fact that beef prices are, in effect, a farmer's income.

It's hard to imagine telling nurses or teachers that they can't strike to look for an improvement in their own wages.

Well, the farmers have to suck it up.

One wonders how - when over 50pc of the country's beef farmers have fewer than 10 cows - they can be such a threat to competition and the consumer.

There may be power in numbers, but the real question the CCPC needs to look at is the power of the processors and retailers have over individual farmers in the current set-up.

At the outset of the protests, one farmer rather ominously suggested to me that the Beef Plan protest was the "last sting of a dying wasp".

Unfortunately, it's beginning to look that way.

While it's unlikely any beef farmer who protested will be happy with the outcome, it remains to be seen if there is any fire left in their bellies to take to the factory gate and protest again.

Farmers have seen that option fail on several occasions now.

Perhaps many will join the growing numbers leaving the sector altogether.

Irish Independent

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