'The mart is our family, we all know one another'
Alison De Vere Hunt of Cashel Mart is all too aware of the intolerable pressure farmers are under, says Lucinda O'Sullivan
Alison De Vere Hunt is one of few women involved at the coalface of the cattle business - along with her brother, Robert, she runs the Cashel Mart Livestock & Property Sales in Co. Tipperary. Dealing with farmers buying and selling cattle would not be a typically glamorous job for a young woman, but Alison can weigh up an animal at the blink of an eye. She had not anticipated being in the family business, as, after school, she trained as a psychologist and took a Master's Degree in Business and Entrepreneurship. However, life took a tragic turn for the De Vere Hunt family, and Alison took up the baton at the mart and has been running with it since.
The De Vere Hunts have been farming near Cashel for four generations - it is where they belong, it is in their blood - it is where Alison and her four brothers grew up."My great-grandfather first came to the home place and my grandfather and father were born there. My father called it paradise. In summer 2012 my dad asked me to go into the real-estate end of the business, which my grandfather bought 40 years ago, so I started working in the mart - as a stopgap, I thought! However, unfortunately, in Christmas week 2012 my dad took his own life and I had to get really involved in the business. After his passing, I fell in love with the place because the support from local farmers and people in the area was unbelievable. It was so humbling and showed that there was still good in a country that's absolutely been ripped asunder."
Alison has chosen to talk about her father's suicide because she feels that many people have been driven to it needlessly by the financial stresses and pressures being put on them over the past few years. She is extremely unhappy about the state of the Irish beef industry at the moment. "My dad was 64 years old two days before he died. It was basically, the stresses and pressure he was under. He believed he would be left with nothing. All he had done was work all his life; a treat to my dad was going to the Ploughing Championships, taking one of us with him, or going to a Tipp match. We weren't the type of family that were cruising down the Med or buying fast cars. I had thirty years of a wonderful father who showed me how to be a decent human being and that everything wasn't about money. It has opened my eyes to the ways of the world because my dad didn't suffer from depression; he was a very clever, astute man and a decent man. I'd say he just felt he had no way out. It is actually something I fear now for the whole beef industry because what is going on is so needless. At Cashel Mart we are like a family, everyone comes in every week, you know them all, and I'd hate to see that happen any of them. Farmers are being shafted; prices this year on many stock would be down €200-€400 per head depending on the type of stock."
Alison explained that the farmers who 'finish' cattle are really suffering with age restrictions imposed by the meat processors of 16 and 30 months. So, if the factory kills an animal over 30 months old, you get less money for your stock. "It's been a very difficult few years for farmers - with the fodder crisis in early 2013, feed was so low and then, this year, it was extremely difficult to get stock into factories. Because of this farmers were forced to keep cattle over 30 months." In essence, they were having to feed them for longer and they were over-age therefore, incurring extra costs and getting a lower kill out price. "Last year the factories didn't want bulls and the farmer suffered because of this. I don't believe that bull meat or such stringent age restrictions make a difference to the taste of beef to the consumer. It's like they pick something out of the air - now its 16 months and 30 months. They are talking now of killing out stock at 14 months, which will mean farmers intensively farming cattle in sheds, feeding them grain because grass won't fatten them up as quickly. The factories and the retailers, the big supermarkets, are just throwing demands out that farmers can't meet. It's like going back to the whole suicide thing, in effect. Our Government is doing very little about the actual issues; they are not tackling them, especially 'pressure suicide', which is what I am familiar with. They are throwing a blind eye to the financial suffering that is going on. Basically, the Government is standing idly by while people are squeezed far beyond a normal level and thus pushing them over the edge - so many have committed suicide due to pressure. It's like me going into a ring with Katie Taylor, I'm never going to win but it's like tying my hands behind my back and putting a blindfold on me as well - you have no chance. I'd say farmers feel the same. There is a slump all year and there is too much dictating going on by the factories and the Department of Agriculture are doing absolutely nothing and our farming bodies, who farmers pay into, are doing very very little."
Alison points out our beef is the best in the world and I more than agree with that. "The UK is our bread and butter but we need to start thinking outside the box. America has had their biggest beef crisis since 1951. They have had serious droughts in California and stocks are at an all-time low. Surely we should be tapping into that market? We need to think of how high-end our beef is. This week, farmers are getting €3.60 a kilo dead weight for their stock, but if you go into some of the supermarkets and buy Aberdeen Angus steaks you could be paying up to €70 a kilo - it's a huge discrepancy. When it comes to meat factories and the whole thing of fair trade and fair play is definitely something that isn't being tackled by our Government. You feel that ordinary working and middle-class people are being totally squeezed. People can't take it any more; they are being taxed out of existence. My generation is gone and the ones that are here are being taxed to high heaven, they can't progress. My town is so quiet. I'd rarely go out there at the weekends because everybody of my generation is gone. The whole political thing has me so disillusioned, the standard of our politician and their blatant disregard for people. They go into these jobs without the know-how of how to get things done. We need practicality, we do need someone like Michael O'Leary; there are too many consultants telling us how we should do this or that. We need a new party, we need something."
"As to the beef, I think its time for Minister Coveney to get involved because he has been very quiet on the issue. The whole horsemeat thing got dealt with very quickly and quietly. It was humongous. There should have been people put into jail over that. I haven't seen anything where the Minister is really helping or getting involved. If they can deal with the horsemeat scandal so quickly they have to do something for the farmer - it has to cut both ways. At the end of the day, these are all human beings, they have to live. That's what going into politics should be all about - looking after the people that haven't got the say so. We have to try to get into new markets. The Chinese are going mad for Irish products. I was in China recently and you can get Kerrygold in supermarkets. That is the way we need to be going. The world is gone very small; it is easier than ever to get stuff out. Look at what Kerry group are doing - why can't we set up some sort of beef industry like that? I really feel we should be tapping into the current American beef shortage - they say it is going to take 6-7 years to recover. We have a great relationship with America. Simon Coveney can bring me with him and I'll sell it for him. We should be marketing it as a high-end product in the restaurants there. They go on about the Kobe beef and Wagyu beef -you can't beat a good Irish steak."
"You see marches in Dublin but more marched for Garth Brooks than the property and water taxes - there are too many agendas. Because the pub trade has gone so quiet and people can't come out for a drink, I see the mart becoming that social place, bachelors who might never buy or sell an animal will be in there on a Saturday and I think that's lovely. If we can facilitate that service - it's become a social place; they are getting out having the crack."