Sustainable farming?

Around 8,000 farmers marched to the Department of Agriculture on Kildare Street on 25 May, to protest against the Competition Authority raiding the IFA headquarters
Around 8,000 farmers marched to the Department of Agriculture on Kildare Street on 25 May, to protest against the Competition Authority raiding the IFA headquarters

The IFA has wasted no time in using the recent raid Competition Authority raid on its HQ to generate publicity for members’ increasingly dire finances



20 June 2011

Share this post:



‘There’s no such thing as a poor farmer’ is a rejoinder that has become familiar across these shores, based on a persistent stereotype of the farmer that pleads poverty, while secretly squirreling away pots of cash for the proverbial ‘rainy day.’ But last month’s mass protest attended by over 8,000 farmers outside the Dáil in Dublin, illustrated that large numbers of farmers believe their livelihoods are under a very real threat. They’re determined to let their views be known by our present-day government and the group they describe as “the most important people in the food chain” – customers.  

This argument is in no way new of course. The Irish Farmers Association (IFA) protested back in February 2009 that its members received as little as one-fifth of the retail price paid by consumers for staple produce. What the protest did more forcibly highlight however, is that the country’s farmers are succeeding in garnering considerable support from the public at large. ShelfLife noted that passers-by on the day of the 25 May protest, made largely positive comments, such as, “Fair play to them for getting out there; we should all be out [protesting]”.

farmers2Public support

Amid a general reluctance among the Irish public to take to the streets to protest against our Nama and IMF-fuelled woes, there appears to be a degree of respect for the farmers who are prepared to shatter our national apathy and take a stand for ‘the little guy’ – instead of just reverting to the usual ineffective grumbles. This support was highlighted by the IFA’s master of ceremonies during its speeches, who claimed the organisation wanted to “thank the public, restaurants and shops [along the protest route] for applauding farmers.”

Irish consumers’ desire to support home-grown produce, and in turn to help create and sustain Irish jobs can also not be underestimated. The idea that in years to come we may become so reliant on foreign multiples, that we can no longer provide food for ourselves is a nightmare scenario.  Indeed it was the genesis of the recent ‘Eat Only Irish week,’ founded by County Roscommon farmer, Brendan Allen. Our reputation for being a ‘food island,’ is most definitely one that we would like to maintain.  

farmers4Facts and figures available

The farmers aren’t presenting a fuzzy ‘feel-good’ argument to simply help sustain a marketing catchphrase for Bord Bia either. As they demonstrated at their protest – where farmers from all sectors, individually took to the microphone to represent their cases – they certainly appear to have all the facts and figures at their disposal.  Something that makes their argument all the more compelling, when contrasted with multiples that refuse to reveal their Irish profits.

For example at present, consumers pay 33c for an egg which farmers produce for 8c. Consumers pay 15 times the production cost of a chicken. The farmer’s share of the retail price for milk has also fallen from 42% in 1996 to 26% in 2009. One speaker, James Murphy, pointed out that even though lamb prices had in fact risen in recent times, that this still reflected poorly on the supermarkets. Whereas the price of lambs had risen by 15%, he pointed out that “the price to the consumer rose only by 1%, meaning that for the last eight/nine years, that they [the multiples] had a very comfortable margin.” He concluded that the lesson to be learnt here was that there is a potential “margin for every sector,” and that farmers should “fight tooth and nail for our livelihoods.”

Farmers speak out

The chairwoman of the Farm Family and Social Affairs Committee, Margaret Healy, pointed out meanwhile that consumers had the power when shopping to ask where goods came from. She subsequently urged people to “use that power and contact the manager.” And showing that farming wives did indeed notice products’ origin, a group told ShelfLife that they had observed shops stocking imported meats, such as a well-known local supermarket selling bacon from Spain.

Other farmers that we spoke to were similarly vocal about the problems they currently face. John Higgins, a drystock farmer from Roscrea, in Tipperary accused the Competition Authority (CA) of “over-stepping the mark,” following the recent raid on IFA headquarters in order to investigate whether the organisation was attempting to fix the price of milk. He said the authority was working for a large retailer who had “supposedly tipped them off.”

Multiples won’t leave

The general feeling of many media commentators seems to be encapsulated by the views of TD for the Roscommon–South Leitrim constituency, Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan, who attended the protest. He told ShelfLife that he personally “didn’t have a problem with the supermarkets”, and that they were “convenient”, but he nevertheless believed that their profits should be more fairly distributed between themselves and farmers. He made the point that if the supermarkets here received less margin, that they were still very unlikely to leave Ireland.

This latter argument is one that is hard to dispute, but although such logic may have gained farmers growing numbers of supporters across the country, the IFA still has  its ardent detractors. One of which is the UK new website, Meat Trade News Daily, which claimed of the 8,000 farmers who protested last month, that their ranks included “5,780 millionaires and 870 multi millionaires, some with €100,000 tractors.” 

No love lost

The Competition Authority doesn’t appear to have a great deal of sympathy for the plight of farmers either. It has been reported that Competition Authority could decide to impose large fines on the IFA. This occurred following alleged disruption by their members of normal business at Iceland stores in March, when they protested against plans to sell milk from Northern Ireland at 99c for two litres.

However the heavy handed approach by the CA, whereby computers, folders and mobile phones were seized from the IFA offices, has also played a role in swaying public opinion in the farmers’ favour. The organisation’s president John Bryan has further capitalised on this by stating that the recent raid was an outrageous attack on farmers and an attempt to undermine their rights. “Any law that protects retailers and criminalises farmers is wrong. Our competition law is flawed and the law must be changed,” he added.

FarmersGovernment on board?

He has subsequently called on the government to “press ahead with their proposals immediately,” regarding a code of conduct for the grocery sector. But while the IFA is adamant that the government should make good on its election promises, Enterprise Minister Richard Bruton seems to be adopting a more measured approach. He has said he will also consider a Competition Authority investigation into milk price fixing, and a report on the proposed new code by independent facilitator John Travers.

This contrasts somewhat with the IFA’s account, with its president stating: “The minister must give a firm commitment that legislation contained in the Programme for Government will be prioritised and implemented without further delay. It was very disappointing to see the current legislative list did not contain the Fair Trade Bill that Fine Gael promoted so vigorously in the run-up to the recent general election…The minister has now received a report from John Travers and we expect him to act quickly.” It remains to be seen whether the Minister will act quickly, or indeed even to the farmers’ satisfaction, but they will certainly do their utmost to ensure this is the case. As John Bryan commented at last month’s protest; “the IFA didn’t choose this fight” but “the fight goes on.” 



Share this post:

Back to Top ↑

Shelflife Magazine