Kilbeggan beef blockade lifted but farmers predict more disputes

Gina Fox

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Gina Fox

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gina.fox@alphanewspapers.co.uk

THE blockade of a meat factory in Kilbeggan was among the last to be lifted as farmers all over the country wound down their campaign against the beef industry.

A small number of farmers from Westmeath and Offaly were still manning a picket at the entrance to the Kepak facility on Friday afternoon.

By Saturday the protest had ended and Kepak Kilbeggan, in common with all meat factories around the country, was returning to production this week.

None of the farmers at the Kilbeggan wished to be named, fearing “an injunction” by the meat industry, but they did outline their grievances and predicted that unless further concessions on price are made, the dispute will resurface.

“I'm here to try and sustain our beef family farms and small beef producers. We're losing money and we are not being treated fairly by the processors,” said one farmer.

He said farmers were not being given respect and that resulted in there being “no customer relationship between the factory and the farmer”.

He said relations between the farmers and the meat factory were soured from the beginning when the industry reacted “aggressively” to what he said was a “peaceful protest” by the producers.

The farmers blocked trucks from entering and leaving the Kepak facility and slaughtering there was suspended.

They said that a base price of €3.40 a kilo was not enough for them to remain in business. One farmer said it had been a problem which had been bubbling underneath the surface for years.

“We had the cushion of the Single Farm Payment and we are eternal optimists, hoping that it will get a bit better next year. It has got consistently a little bit worse and we always ended up taking the pain the whole time.”

Though the introduction of new bonus payments for animals which meet certain criteria resulted in an agreement being reached the previous Sunday, one of the farmers continuing the protest in Kilbeggan appealed to people to look at the bigger picture.

He said the problem was the existence of “massive big feed-lots” of cattle, which stood in contrast to the traditional Irish family farm beef herd, a model which if maintained, will serve to strengthen the “green” image of Irish beef.

“A 36-month animal fed off grass would be a great marketing tool rather than the 30-month that is fed off concentrates,” he said.

While he understood why some farmers had voted in favour of ending the blockades earlier, he said the big farm organisations had let them down.

Furthermore, farmers were at fault for not being more critical of their representatives at national level.

One man said he was no longer a member of the IFA since the controversy a couple of years ago about payments in headquarters.

“We all need money and we all have bills to pay. But unfortunately we have been poorly served, it's our own fault. We allowed our farm organisations and the meat processors to be hand in glove,” he said.

“I have left the IFA. The straw that broke the camel's back was the scandal, the financial scandal over the last two years. We tended to sit back and not scrutinise,” he added. “We didn't question them enough and we believed everything that they told us.”

Some beef farmers also took the view that for a long time they have been treated differently to their dairying counterparts.

Dairy farmers have more clarity on the price of their produce and the quality of their milk, with the results of regular testing made readily available.

“When the price of milk went down the dairy co-ops... they cushioned it a little bit for a month or two. Here we get no cushion, get no notice of the price going down,” said one farmer.

Another man on the protest said the Irish Beef Sector Agreement of September 15, which was reached after talks involving Meat Industry Ireland, several farm organisations and the Beef Plan Movement, had made “muck” of farmers.

He called the deal the “Kildare Street agreement” and commented: “They make little of us and we're very upset. The Kildare Street agreement is making little of us. We're not criminals.”

Among the provisions in the deal are an eight-cent per kilo bonus for steers and heifers aged between 30 and 36 months which meet all non-age related in-spec criteria, and an increase in another bonus from 12 cent to 20 cent per kilo.

Another bonus of 12 cent a kilo is being introduced for steers and heifers under 30 months in the O grade category with fat scores of 4-plus.

Furthemore, the deal commits Bord Bia to developing a meat price index and Teagasc to carrying out a review of the quality payment grid.

One farmer said these measures do not go far enough and ignore the key issue of the base price per kilo.

“If they give us a base price we'd be glad to go home,” he said. “We've no choice because this time next year we're going to be in a worse position. What we're getting for our cattle now, we won't be able to replace them with the money we're getting.”

A farmer who was strongly opposed to disbanding the protest said farmers who wished to bring their cattle for slaughter could do so at the factories which had returned to production.

Meat factory managers were condemned for failing to speak to farmers directly at the factory gates.

In Kilbeggan the farmers said an opening had been cut in a fence so vehicles could bypass the protest at the main entrance.

A base price of €3.80 was mentioned as an acceptable increase but some farmers believe that €4 per kilo must be paid to make the business break even, let alone profitable.

They said they had sympathy for the workers who had been laid off in the factories and agreed with a suggestion from one of the unions that meat factories and farmers should make common cause against the industry owners.

Another farmer said he believed machinery sales had gone down during the eight-week long campaign.

“It's in nobody's interest that we go out of business,” he said.

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