Margaret Donnelly: Beef bailout may cause more problems than it will solve for some

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Margaret Donnelly

Margaret Donnelly

Even the most optimistic of us would find it hard not to adopt a cynical outlook at the announcement of a €100m beef support package days out from European and local elections. Despite what the politicians say, the timing would strongly suggest that it's merely another sweetener after the €3bn National Broadband Plan.

It's hardly a coincidence that both announcements come as Fine Gael slides in the polls, or that the beef fund is €100m, nearly exactly what the ICSA and IFA estimated that beef farmers have lost since last autumn.

However, throwing money at the problem of beef prices won't wash with many farmers and, worse still, won't solve the sector's underlying income problems.

In fact, it's quite likely to cause headaches for the farming organisations, who will now try to steer the Department of Agriculture on how it distributes the €100m. It could turn out to be a classic 'be careful what you wish for' moment for Minister Creed and the farm orgs alike as it's not hard to imagine how the dispersal of the €100m might end up dividing farmers and benefitting few.

Of the country's 139,000 farms, some 110,000 are involved in some level of cattle production, while 78,000 are considered 'specialist beef' farms. Now, take that €100m and suggest a fair way to divide it between 78,000 farms.

The simple option, the quickest to implement and the one that many might consider 'fair' would see each farmer receive €1,200 if the fund is divided equally.

But that seems unlikely to happen and current speculation is that the fund will be aimed at beef finishers, who have been putting through in the region of 40,000 head of cattle some weeks since October last.

It would be a relatively simple way to divide up the money, but one that would target just beef finishers and, by default, result in supports being paid out to factories with feed lots of their own. This would also be at odds with the Minister Creed's position on the coupling of payments by once again linking EU money to production.

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For now, we're going to have to wait and see what the minister and his officials decide, while the various stakeholders lobby and suggest the 'fairest' way to divide the money.

Few will argue that if farmers who suffered genuine losses get a slice of this compensation, but how any farm organisation can figure out who deserves the money most without ostracising some of their members remains to be seen. Meanwhile, this Friday's election will be well over before any detail is determined, and the Government will hope to benefit from these sweeteners for rural Ireland.

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