“The hardest thing about being back is that the social aspect is gone for now,” said Eimear McGuinness, manager of Donegal Livestock Mart. She was speaking to AgriLand after the easing of Covid-19 restrictions allowed the reopening of marts.

“In what was once a happy place, there is a massive change and that has even been commented on by the buyers. It’s all very clinical at the minute. I hope that social aspect is not lost forever. The social aspect is as important to farmers as anything else,” said Eimear, who took over as manager in 2007.

When it comes to farmers abiding by the new rules, some are compliant and some are not, she said.

“I hope that this problem will sort itself out over the coming weeks when farmers get a better understanding of how marts have to operate under the new restrictions. If people attending marts are not abiding by their rules, marts could have their licence removed by the Department of Agriculture.

We had a lot of farmers turn up without booking spots to watch the sale. Unfortunately, we could not accommodate all of them but we did try to alternate as many as possible throughout the sale. All prospective buyers were admitted first as we need them to create trade.

“Some others had to be told to go back on their appropriate spots for bidding. Generally people just forget themselves and wanted to chat in that social aspect. They just need a gentle reminder that they cannot do that. All sellers and buyers need to be signed in and out. All doors need to be manned and the entry gate also,” said Eimear.

“Additional staff are needed to carry out all these tasks and advise people where they can and cannot be. With regard to marts that have installed online systems, the cost of these systems is an extra cost to the marts. In a lot of cases, these systems will also require an extra person to keep track of the online bidding,” she said.

‘Added work’

“At present, due to Covid 19, there are some farmers who do not wish to wait on the sale of their animals. These animals are sold conditionally and the mart then contacts the seller to see if they are happy with prices before they are sold.

“There is just a lot of added work to what was a simple system. The onus was always on the seller to watch for the sale of their stock going through the ring. Now a member of staff has to keep track of this and let the seller know when their lot is near entering the ring,” Eimear said.

“As we know, the marts’ busiest time of the year is January to May. We lost most of March and we reopened last week. This is a massive chunk of revenue for the year gone. A lot of farmers sold their stock through other methods as they needed to pay bills and make room on farms so this is revenue that cannot be recouped now we are reopened,” she said.

“With marts, recurring overheads such as insurance, rates and software maintenance are quite substantial and they have not changed and still have to be met even though our revenue for the year will be a lot less. We are hopeful that marts will be able to apply for a restart grant that will recoup commercial rates for 2019,” said Eimear.

“However, we feel that commercial rates for marts should be abolished for the next two years at the very least to allow marts to recoup lost revenue. We also feel that since marts in rural areas generally only operate one day a week, rates bills for marts are far too high.”

‘Vitally important’

Marts have had to install online trading systems in order to do business, Eimear said.

“The Government announced grant aid through the local enterprise offices for online trading. It turns out that marts cannot avail of these grants. Like many other of their grant aids, we fall outside the criteria requirements for a number of reasons such as numbers of staff and turnover,” she said.

“While we understand that this is the remit of the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation [Heather Humphries], we feel that our Minister for Agriculture [Michael Creed] needs to make our case heard and help our sector. Marts are vitally important to the farming sector and we need support like every other sector.”