This year Macra na Feirme celebrates 75 years of representing, supporting and developing young farmers to help them overcome the challenges they and their communities face.
In the face of rock bottom beef prices, Brexit and a feeling of being exploited, our young beef farmers are facing great uncertainty, which emphasises the need for solutions and the development of a pragmatic action plan for the sector. We must work to restore the confidence of those that keep this sector alive.
In an extensive countrywide consultation exercise with our members, we have looked at the strengths and the weaknesses of our sector, what can be built on, what must be changed and where the opportunities to make changes are. The strengths in our favour are well discussed, we have a standard of production, traceability and animal welfare that is second to none. We have a marketing body in Bord Bia, who have attained access worldwide to new markets for our produce and we have a grass-fed model which can provide a relatively cheap food source for our animals.
What we are not doing with these strengths is maximising the benefit from them. Access to new markets has provided a destination for our product, but it is clearly not returning a benefit to the pocket of the primary producer, and given the extra requirements put in place to gain this access, this must change or our sector will not be viable. On the farm, we need to invest in our soil and grass management and utilise the resource underneath our feet.
The weaknesses in our sector are played out on a daily basis, as the unfair trading practices used by those further down the supply chain distort the market and this is then used as a justification for a price which is well behind that of our nearest neighbor. This combined with below-cost selling is creating an atmosphere in which very few beef farms can be considered viable, let alone sustainable.
What our meat processors and retailers must realise is that their source of high-quality produce and hence the future of their businesses are inextricably linked to generational renewal in the beef sector. The age profile of the average beef farmer was once a growing concern in the industry, now it must be at the forefront of their thoughts. As less and less young farmers see a future in beef farming, with them goes the future of the sector. Unless young people can be shown that there is a sustainable career — one that is economically, environmentally and socially sustainable — the future of this sector is in serious doubt.
As part of the launch of our report in to the need for continuing professional development recently, it is clear that young farmers are keen to keep themselves abreast of the latest developments both scientifically and technologically.
It is this enthusiasm for personal and business development that can address some of the other challenges facing the sector such as climate change. For example, the use of sexed semen or beef bulls in the dairy sector can have a significant impact on the quality of cattle being reared. This combined with the development of producer groups which can guarantee a supply of cattle within a certain spec must be recognised by the processors by the availability of forward selling and supplier contracts to give these farmers certainty over their income. Both of these are advancements that can be led by young farmers and which must be rewarded with the payment of a young farmer premium.
Macra na Feirme recently launched our Sustainable Beef Policy, which we believe is a pragmatic but workable roadmap for our sector. However, as farm organisations we must work together to create one message, we cannot pit farmer against farmer as this only helps those already capitalising on our hard work.
Whatever will come will be a compromise and be willing to consider all approaches for the betterment of all beef farmers. I call on the Minister to reconvene the Beef Forum, because — whatever can or cannot be achieved at the table — we will achieve nothing away from it.