Plight of beef farmers outlined at special meeting with council
There was a palpable air of anger, frustration and sheer desperation in County Hall as County Council Chairman Michael Sheehan hosted a meeting with a deputation of farmers who are currently embroiled in the beef crisis.
Farmers from across the county have been putting in long hours on the picket lines at the likes of Slaney Foods in Clohamon, stating that beef farming is becoming completely unsustainable and they are not getting a fair price for their product.
The meeting was organised by Cllr Pip Breen who stated that we are 'at a crossroads' and that things have 'gone past critical for most agricultural businesses.
Particularly harrowing was an impassioned plea from farmer Mattie White from Bannow, who stated that farmers were feeling 'pure desperation'.
'For 20 years suckler farmers have been robbed blind in this country,' he said, visibly upset.
'I can barely afford to put my daughter through college. My income last year was €1,500 profit. I've no problem telling you that. Thirteen weeks ago, I got a call from a man in a desperate state, standing in his shed with a rope around his neck. I stayed there for two and a half hours talking to that man. That's how desperate things are. We've had enough. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have let the farmers in this country down.'
Breaking down the figures, Wexford's representative on the IFA's national livestock committee JJ Kavanagh stated that on average, from every €10 spent on beef, €4 goes to the processor, €4 goes to the retailer and €2 goes to the farmer. He estimated that farmers would need at least €1 more per kilo just to break even. He also pointed out that he wasn't looking for consumers to pay more for beef, but simply a fair share for farmers who are keeping the animal for over two years. 'We need transparency,' he said. 'Surely we're entitled to a bit of transparency?'
Brian Byrne from the Beef Plan Movement was visibly angry with the situation and let his feelings be known.
'There's far too much control within these bigger organisations,' he said.
'The farmers are getting the smallest amount despite three years work. The factory has the animal for a couple of days. How is that fair?'
Mr Byrne was also critical of the councillors and other elected representatives.
'We had lads protesting down at the factories and people in this room could have called down to them and showed their support,' he said. 'Now it's become a big issue and everyone wants to be involved and be seen to help the farmers out. Every week people are going out of business. The government should be ashamed.'
With the members having sat since 11 a.m., one or two started to leave as the clock ticked past 7 p.m.
'What's the rush lads?' Mr Byrne fumed. 'I see some of ye leaving and I'll be taking note of who they are. You need to educate yourselves on this situation. I see three of four of ye are busy on your phones there, maybe that's what you're doing!'
When Cllr Sheehan pointed out that it had been a long day for the council members, Mr Byrne shot back: 'I'm putting in 15 hour days at the gates of the factory.'
County Chair of Macra na Feirme Sarah Mackey offered the perspective of young people on the crisis. She spoke of how she had been working with her father in farming for ten years, but had recently made the decision to go back to college and retrain because the future was so uncertain.
Former Chair of the ICSA Patrick Kent stated that there were only two small abattoirs left in the county, in Camolin and Murrintown. He said that the fact that this was the case amounted to 'negligence' from the council.
Another issue which came in for major discussion was the Mercosur Trade Deal, over which the farmers were extremely critical of the government. They said that it paves the way for 'inferior quality' beef to flood the market and that huge sections of rainforest were being burnt to the ground in Brazil to make space for grazing cattle as a result.
After the farmers voices had been heard, the councillors took the opportunity to speak on the matter. Quite a few spoke of their own backgrounds in farming and how they had visited the picket lines at Slaney Foods.
Cllr Fionntán Ó'Súilleabháin called for the members to encourage their TDs to back Sinn Féin's Beef Transparency Bill and 'put party politics aside' for the good of the farming community.
Having been at the factory gates in Clohamon, Cllr Pat Barden observed that 'the whole thing is seriously disorganised' and called for unity among the various groups involved and for the farmers to speak with one voice; a call which was backed by several of the council members.
Cllr Jim Codd spoke of growing up on a farm. 'My father got more money for cattle than you do now,' he said. 'What people maybe don't realise is that if ye go, shops go, pubs go. If the processors are not held accountable, it's game over. This is a long time coming.'
'I've been farming all my life,' said Cllr Frank Staples. 'It's a part-time operation. I'd hate to be full time. My son said to me the other day that he wouldn't be buying any cattle because we just don't know how things are going to go. It's nearly impossible to make money from it.'
Despite being a Fine Gael councillor, Cllr Cathal Byrne was critical of the government's approach to farmers.
'I might not be thanked for saying it, but I think the government has been too soft on this,' he said. 'Everything comes down to control and there's too much control in the hands of the processors. I think the competition and control regulator needs to step in. I'm the first of eight generations of my family not to farm the land. It's just not viable. I suppose all we can do is carry the message up the line and I'll certainly be doing that.'
Cllr Oliver Walsh spoke of how he was forced to abandon suckler farming himself.
'I was a suckler farmer myself until a few short years ago,' he said. 'I have a young family and I just couldn't continue to lose money the way I was. Going forward here, I feel there needs to be a Chief Negotiator on behalf of the farmers. I think the organisations need to come together.'
This was a point also made by Cllr Ger Carthy who suggested that Chairman Michael Sheehan facilitate a meeting to bring all the organisations together with a common goal of establishing a fair price for beef.
JJ Kavanagh thanked the councillors for listening and for their suggestions, but pointed out that with injunctions being taken out against farmers and a number of legal issues preventing them from discussing price, the Chairman may even be breaking the law by hosting such a meeting.
Mr Byrne from the Beef Plan Movement finished with an impassioned plea of his own.
'I'd urge ye all, go into your local supermarket and ask to speak to the manager. Ask him his thoughts on the price of beef and what farmers are getting. Let him go to his boss and then his boss. Inform yourselves on what's going on around you. Ye only came up to Slaney Meats when it was in the paper and on the radio. Open your eyes to what's going on around you.'
Cllr Pip Breen concluded the meeting by thanking everyone for attending.
'Everyone is here for the right reason,' he said.
'We want to defend the livelihoods of farmers. Make no mistake about it, the fight is only starting. It's no coincidence that factories are putting the boot in when Brexit is hanging over us. Minister Creed is doing nothing to help farmers and his just playing the game for the big boys.'