Like a substantial number of beef and suckler farmers, I spent last Wednesday night at the beef plan meeting in The Clanree Hotel in Letterkenny. Although I cannot say I agreed with everything that was said, you would have to say that the top table made some good points, were extremely passionate about what they were saying and deserve every support that can be afforded to them.
The main voices at the top table were Eamon Corley, a suckler farmer from Co Meath, Kieran Logue, a Donegal man now farming in Meath and Micheal Rafferty from Monaghan. The beef plan movement is based around an 86-point plan. First of all, it aims to get the backing of 40,000 farmers.
The membership fee to join the group is €10. The fee is to allow the group get legal recognition and for this to happen everyone needs to be a member. Secondly, it is to cover room hire for meetings along with administration and secretarial fees.
Put very simply the aim of the group is to try to help the farmer achieve a fair share of the retail price for beef through a cost of production plus a margin. The slogan is “don’t let greedy retailers and ruthless factories drive you out of beef”.
One interesting statistic among many that were relayed at the meeting, one that I do not think will come as a surprise to any beef farmer, was that in the 1970s a farmer was getting 40% of the retail price for his or her beef. Now the farmer gets 19%.
The formation of producer groups and purchasing groups in every county is high on their agenda. The formation of producer groups will mean that farmers will have more of a voice through larger numbers and although each group will be separate, they will be able to work together to control cattle supply.
The idea of the purchasing groups is to lead to cheaper inputs. I know one could say all these things have been tried before, and you would be right, but probably not on such a grand scale.
Probably the main aim of the group is to get 40,000 farmers to stand together, to stand united and to stay united. Even if that means turning down the factory agents when they ring offering you a great price to fill out tomorrow’s kill. That has definitely never been done before!
It is also looking to get independent factories to kill cattle so that the group can then market the beef themselves. It was said that it has already spoken to Chinese customers who are sitting ready to take Irish beef and at a much higher price than is currently being achieved.
Farmers’ markets were spoken about as a means of selling direct to the customer and reducing the volume of cattle going through the factories. It was said reducing the number of dairy-bred calves being taken through to beef would also help the beef trade.
A couple of possible solutions were to relax live export rules to allow more calves to leave the country and to explore the possibility of putting more calves into grass fed veal production.
We were also told at the meeting, and I have no reason to doubt its accuracy, that only three supermarkets in Britain stock Irish beef - Tesco, Asda and Sainsburys. There it is sold as a discount product, 27% cheaper than British beef.
Now I do not know the ins and outs of why this is, but I do know that Irish milk powder is a highly sought after product the world over for infant formula and other such products. It is a high-end, high value, premium product, seen as one of the best, if not the best in the world. Grass-fed Irish beef should be no different.
It is a high-end premium product and should be treated as one. If it is being sold at a discount then it would seem that Bord Bia or somebody in charge of marketing our beef is failing us!
It is going to take an awful lot of work and effort to try to change what happens within the beef trade. A couple of huge companies control everything and seem to be able to do what they want.
It is laughable when you think about it, the fifth quarter as far as I am aware is worth over €100 to the factory. The farmer does not get paid a penny for this even though apart from stomach contents and a few other bits and pieces every part of the animal is saleable. However, the farmer still has to pay a clipping charge if he sends in a dirty animal!
The few men that have started this beef plan are trying to do something, it’s a huge undertaking but maybe just maybe, if every beef farmer joins the plan and gets behind them, then maybe they can achieve their goals.
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