The ongoing crisis in Irish farming boiled over this week as tens of thousands of farmers blockaded 40 meat plants throughout the 26 Counties, leaving 3,500 meat factory workers on protective notice. The 600 road hauliers who work exclusively for the meat industry also found themselves out of work.
The High Court and news media filled the void left by the Agriculture Minister Joe Walsh whose lack of political leadership fuelled the conflict between the Irish Farmers Association (IFA) and the Irish Meat Association (IMA) .
What should have been an easily resolved dispute rapidly escalated into a standoff between the meat processors and farmers, with farm machinery blocking factory entrances and 24-hour pickets moving into their 11th consecutive day.
The dispute began after the meat processors decided to pass the vetinary inspection costs incurred at their plants onto the farmers. Farmers and the Department of Agriculture had been paying an inspection levy of £3.75 per animal at the factories. Last week, the meat processors decided to pass a further £1.75 in inspection costs per animal onto the farmer.
NO SELL OUT
This was a step too far for the IFA. They opposed the increased levy and wanted also an increase in meat prices to 90p per pound. This was the level deemed by the farm advisory body Teagasc as being necessary for farmers who were fattening cattle over the winter to break even. Current prices languish at around 80p per pound.
IFA president Tom Parlon summed up the attitude of the farmers: ``It is almost our last stand and we must win this battle. I will not sell out my members. The factories made £50 million clear profit on our backs late this year and all we are asking is our fair share of that.''
The IFA pickets landed them in the High Court as the IMA sought to have the blockade injuncted. Injunctions were granted commanding the IFA to remove the pickets and threatening them with fines. The IFA ignored the injunctions and on Friday 14 January, Justice O'Donovan levied a fine of £100,000 per day on the organisation for every day the dispute continued.
The pickets continued all through last weekend despite the beginning of talks between the IFA and IMA chaired by Agriculture Minister Joe Walsh.
On Monday, 17 January, the High Court raised the daily fine against the IFA to £500,000. That night, the IFA national council in a sleight of hand agreed to abide by the High Court directives and then resigned en masse. The pickets meanwhile continued, as did the talks between the processors and farmers.
Even if the two issues at the heart of this dispute were resolved, the ongoing crisis in Irish farming will not have been tackled effectively. The underlying problem is that agriculture as a business in Ireland is a profitable and growing industry while agriculture as a way of life is in decline. Farm sizes are slowly increasing and the numbers of commercial farmers are falling. The IFA currently has 85,000 members. How many of these will still be actively engaged in farming in five years? The ESRI estimates that only 80,000 of the current 140,000-plus farmers are commercially viable.
The problems in the beef industry are replicated weekly in the sheep and pig processing industries. Farmers in these sectors have seen their incomes decimated over the past two years. The IFA have raised these issues with the government but their core tactic has been to lobby for increased funding from EU and Dublin Government sources.
EU funding favours the farms with the largest output, yet these are the ones who are suffering least from the present problems. An Phoblacht raised this issue with IFA spokesperson Derek Cunningham, who conceded that the CAP system is based on farm output, but the IFA do not see this as being a problem. Meanwhile, the number of commercial farmers dwindles.
The second aspect of the farmer's dilemma is that a vibrant food processing business has grown out of their activities. This business profits from farm output but they have little share in the benefit and no control of the industry.
This was an issue raised by United Farmers Association (UFA) spokesperson Paul O'Hanlon. He told An Phoblacht: ``If you haven't got control over the processing of your food and the marketing of it you are not at the races.''
O'Hanlon believes that there is a pressing need for farmer and state involvement in the the meat processing industry. The current situation where the industry was dominated by three or four processors who have their own beef herds was a form of ``insider trading''.
However, where farmers have had shareholdings in co-operative farm businesses, the trend has been to sell out to corporate interests for short-term gain. The Waterford-Avonmore merger is the most recent example of this process. Farmers received subtantial cash payments and other concessions for selling the businesses they used to own. Now investment banks and pension funds will run the business, but in whose interest? There are no guarantees that the farmers' needs will be included in future strategies.
The farmers are the forgotten cog in the food business. In the USA more and more farms are being amalgamated into factory farms owned by corporate businesses. Less people live on the land and rural life has been fundamentally altered.
Is this the future we want for Irish farming? It is up to the IFA and the Department of Agriculture to provide the necessary leadership to guarantee farming as a way of life.