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US deal gives us a chance to create 'the Kerrygold' of beef

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Were you listening to the radio? Robin asked as he walked into the kitchen after his first tranche of outdoor jobs around 8am last Tuesday morning.

When I indicated that I hadn't, his response was, "that's all right so."

"What is it?"

"I'll tell you this evening."

There followed a few moments of silence - guilty on one side, puzzled on the other.

"Oh, OK …" he gave in.

"You know it's the sixth of January, Little Christmas, the Epiphany, Women's Christmas …."

I nodded acknowledgment of all the aforementioned.

"… And that women are supposed to have the day off from all work."

No more than myself, he is not wild about housework. But, though Robin will be mortified at me saying this, he's actually not all that bad at it.

He prepares the porridge every evening and empties the girls' lunchboxes. He has even been known to do a spot of vacuuming.

Nor do his cooking skills stop at porridge. He can also do boiled eggs, fried eggs, scrambled eggs and poached eggs.

He is also quite capable of defrosting and microwaving. Failing any of those, there is always the delicious pizza in the Eagle's Rest in Abbeyleix.

But I WAS listening to the radio the previous morning to hear the news that the American market is set to reopen to Irish beef.

The US imported approximately 1.2m tonnes of beef in 2013, while Ireland exported 466,000 tonnes.

The highest area of growth in the US beef market is what they call 'greenbeef', which currently accounts for 10pc of consumption, with the sector growing at 20pc/year.

Is it too much to hope that there will be Irish steak in the White House for St Patrick's Day?

Credit must be given to Minister Coveney, the Department and Bord Bia who obviously have done a lot of work in the background to finally bring this to fruition.

Rewards

Reacting to the breakthrough, Minister Coveney said it is now up to the industry to run with this.

But is that really the right way to go? Why, after investing such effort and taxpayers money in securing this potential market, is it now going to be handed over to private interests to reap the rewards?

Especially when you consider the statement from Meat Industry Ireland that "the US market will ultimately be a high value/low volume niche market" …but due to lower-than-normal beef production in the US at present, there is opportunity to potentially export greater volumes, including manufacturing beef."

So, while the announcement has been generally got an enthusiastic reception, ICSA president Patrick Kent said "farmers will remain sceptical given the ruthless downward manipulation of prices by the meat industry over the past 12 months.

They are still waiting to see concrete benefits from previous announcements of new markets."

Should we instead be looking at radically changing at the way we sell our beef?

Why not let ABP or any other individual meat processor go down the generic route if they want to, but put the main focus on creating beef products with unique selling points?

Is this the best chance we will ever have to not just to break into what is effectively a new market, but to establish a genuinely premium Irish beef product that is naturally reared (suckled), fed on a grass-based diet, environmentally sustainable, welfare friendly and fully traceable?

Surely this is the ideal opportunity to set up one of the Minister's much-touted producer groups whereby Bord Bia would bring together a group of farmers that tick all the relevant boxes.

They could then take on the marketing of this beef in the US, with the processing of the carcase put out to tender.

This may have the potential to become the 'Kerrygold of beef', but only if it is driven by those who have a real vested interest in its success as a high end product.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the girls returned to school last Monday and I took the opportunity to catch up with some of the ladies for a badly needed brisk walk.

I had already started to sense that the days were beginning to lengthen and one of the first things we saw was a patch of Winter Heliotrope, the first wild flower of the year in this part of the world.

This is not a native plant but one that escaped from gardens and is now widespread. It has powder pink flowers and large, heart-shaped leaves.

Heliotropism is the daily movement of plants in response to the sun so the flowers and leaves of these plants gradually follow the sun from east to west during the day and turn back to the east overnight to welcome the new dawn.

On a much sadder note, last week also brought the sudden death of John McNamee, a bookseller in Portlaoise for many years. He was aged just 59.

When he first arrived in the town, John worked as a milkman before turning his love of books into a business, setting up Laois Education Supplies, which eventually moved to Coliseum Lane to what is now a bustling three-storey Eason bookshop.

Up to this time two years ago, we had only ever exchanged pleasantries.

Then, one day, I just walked in and asked him if he would be interested in publishing our book A Year on Our Farm, which was in a very embryonic state at the time.

Though he knew nothing about me, he immediately came on board and the book was duly published in September 2013.

I will always be grateful for the faith he showed in me when nobody else was interested.

I remember in particular what happened when, after many long hours of hard work on the book, we finally agreed the cover. We shook hands. Hugging is now very popular even in business but this felt just right to me. It was a respectful gesture between equals. I felt proud and happy.

A former president of the European and International Booksellers Federation, John was a character in the flattering sense of the word, always bursting with enthusiasm and ideas. Though a native of Armagh, he thought of Laois as home and was very concerned about the county's financial future.

My sincere condolences go to his wife Betty, children Eoin and Mary, his siblings and many friends.

afitzgerald@ independent.ie

Indo Farming