The IFA farmers were responding to an increase in charges for veterinarian services levied by the processing companies after the government cut subsidies for the vet charges. This was the last straw for the farmers who were already forced to sell their cattle for less than the costs of production.
While it costs 85 pence per pound to produce average grade beef, farmers have been receiving at the most 84 pence per pound from the processing plants before the new charge was levied.
The majority of these farmers work very small holdings, the average herd size being just 12 animals.
The processors rapidly backed off the charge increase, but farmers continued their action, demanding a price of 90 pence per pound and other measures. In a report published in An Phoblacht/Republican News, IFA president Tom Parlon summed up the attitude of the farmers: "It is almost our last stand and we must win this battle.... 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 Irish Meat Association won a court injunction against the IFA, but the farmers continued the action anyway. Then the judge who issued the injunction added a fine of £100,000 per day for any breach of the injunction, but to no avail. When the judge upped the daily fines to £500,000, the IFA leadership formally voted to call off the actions, then promptly resigned their posts, still thwarting the judge's order. Farmers' pickets continued to keep the processing plants closed.
In face of this determination, the packinghouse bosses and the court lifted the injunction January 20 after the judge, Dairmuid O'Donovan, complained he wasn't prepared to watch his order deliberately flouted.
In the following days, pickets were lifted at processing plants as bosses one by one conceded to the IFA's demands. By the end of January farmers had won an average increase of 7 pence per pound across all processing plants, and the pickets were taken down. Details of the settlement and photos of the farmers' picket lines can be seen on the internet at www.ifa.ie/.
"The determined action of the IFA and farmers with the meat factories over the last 14 days has returned dignity and power back to livestock producers," Parlon said in a press release. "For the first time ever farmers now have published prices for every meat plant in the country before they sell their stock. Farmers can now see exactly what they are getting for cattle and are no longer relying on dealers or agents for this information."
It is not just beef farmers who are suffering the results of low prices and high production costs. Of the 140,000 farmers in Ireland, only an estimated 80,000 are in a commercially viable position.
Farmers in Northern Ireland, seeing the results of the IFA action, set up pickets at beef processing factories there. Miceal McCoy, chair of the Northern Ireland Agricultural Producers Association (NIAPA) that organized the protest, said in a telephone interview January 25 that the pickets were a warning that farmers in the north were capable of doing what was done in the south.
NIAPA is a union of 4,000–5,000 mainly small beef and sheep farmers from the poorest areas of Northern Ireland. "Farming has been in crisis here for four years, particularly since the BSE [Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy--Mad Cow Disease] crisis began," McCoy said. Because Northern Ireland is maintained as part of the United Kingdom and ruled from Westminster, farmers were subject to the beef export ban imposed on the UK. At the same time, small farmers there face greater exploitation than their counterparts in the rest of the country. "In Northern Ireland we are getting £80–£100 less per animal than is paid in Britain," he said.
NIAPA is discussing future actions against "the unequal distribution of profits in the beef industry," McCoy said. What is at stake in this fight, he adds, is not just the future of small farmers, but the future of entire rural areas.
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