Memo to AgriLand: ‘The next minister of agriculture has a lot of work to do’

As the results of General Election 2020 roll in – revealing an entirely changed political landscape from which the 33rd Dáil will emerge – messages for the next minister for agriculture, food and the marine are already being penned.

In a memo to AgriLand, Eimear McGuinness, the manager of Donegal Co-op Livestock Mart and chairperson of Mart Managers of Ireland – a recently formed entity of 30 marts from across the country that are seeking significant changes to the trade – is imploring the next farming minister to make marts a priority.

Although it is not yet clear how the political chips with fall in terms of the next government formation, below is a flavour of where many of nation’s mart mangers stand:

Life

“Enjoying a day out at the mart is a typical day for any Irish farmer, or indeed anyone living in rural towns and villages throughout the country.

“For most farmers, mart day represents an opportunity to meet friends and catch up on local news.

“For older farmers living on their own a visit to the mart is possibly the only day in the week when they can enjoy a cooked meal – courtesy of the canteen – while also looking after their mental health.

“Towns and villages come alive on mart day and businesses prosper. Marts also provide employment in rural communities – much of which is off-farm work.

“The very reason marts were established in Ireland over 50 years ago was to provide an outlet for farmers to sell and purchase their livestock in a place that provided the opportunity for a competitive and fair price – with guaranteed payment.

“Marts play a crucial role at the very heart of Irish rural society. But at this moment in time, many towns will face the real fear of losing their local marts.”

Intervention

On behalf of Mart Managers of Ireland, McGuinness has identified many factors that are contributing to this burden.

However, she points out that many such challenges can be alleviated with “the right intervention”.

“There has been a dramatic rise in annual insurance premiums for livestock marts nationally – ranging from a 46% to 255% increase between the 2015 to 2018.

“Increases in premiums are occurring irrespective of the size of the mart, or the history of public liability claims.

“For example, in a small local mart, the insurance premium has increased from €7,000 in 2015 to €15,000 in 2018; however, there has been no public liability claims in this particular mart during this period.

“Insurances providers have indicated that livestock marts are costing them ‘too much money’ as a result of public liability claims.

“Mart representatives are concerned that in cases where there are sufficient grounds to dispute public liability claims; insurance providers have opted to settle claims, as they often view this as a more cost-effective option.”

McGuinness highlights that some livestock marts have requested that insurance providers review such cases.

Livestock vs. property

McGuinness also warns of the consequences of declining suckler cow numbers – recent data from the Irish Cattle Breeding Federation (ICBF) indicates that the national suckler cow herd currently totals at just 934,273 cows, representing a decline of 42,065 head on 2018 levels.

Many would argue that an even greater reduction will be witnessed once the Beef Data and Genomics Programme (BDGP) finishes this year.

“Over the past four years the number of suckler cows in Ireland has declined year on year.

“From 2016 to 2019 they have decreased by 83,936. With numbers decreasing and costs increasing, marts are struggling.”

The mart manager also points to increased regulations and “red tape” which she says has increased workloads and costs.

“Since 2011, marts were catapulted under the umbrella of estate agents (who sell houses) and are now regulated by the Property Services Regulatory Authority (PSRA).

“While regulation was welcomed, we feel that in many cases it remains hard for marts to operate under a lot of their rules  – as selling livestock and property are very different things.

“For example, Continuing Professional Development [CPD] training and the likes are requirements of marts to get licences every year – yet there is no mention of marts at this training.

“Since 2019, the Department of Agriculture has introduced new requirements for mart licensing.

“It is almost to the point of quality assurance, except we didn’t actually get that title – and yet cattle that pass through a mart do not retain their quality assurance. Costs, costs and more costs.

Safe trade

McGuinness contends that regulations, testing requirements and Bord Bia specifications that have been introduced over the years “are basically taking cattle and sheep from the live auctions and encouraging them directly into the factory hands”.

“We have seen this for years through the four movement rule, 30-day residency, 70-day quality assurance – they increase year-on-year for the cattle, which makes the value of the animal decrease when it enters a mart.

“This is also evident now through the sheep with the introduction of EID [electronic identification] tagging.

“When a lamb is sold through a mart, it must present with two tags; but only requires one when it goes for slaughter – the mart being at the disadvantage, yet again.

“Farmers are struggling to agree credit facilities with banks which is also having a knock-on effect on a lot of marts.

“Suckler farming and beef farming has come under serious pressure over the past number of years.

“While farm bodies fight for increased supports for our farmers, if we go back to the root of the problem, farmers need to get a fair price for the product they are producing.

“Marts offer the farmer the best and safest place to trade their livestock.”

Rural Survival

Last year, Mart Managers of Ireland came together in a bid to explore ways to alleviate some of these concerns. The group continues to welcome any other interested marts.

“Already we have made great headway on insurance in marts; and we intend to set up other cost-saving schemes for marts. We believe we can make savings with strength in numbers.

“However, we require the assistance of the department, farm organisations and government bodies to work with us and talk to us about how best to overcome some of these massive issues which are threatening mart survival.

“We are the people on the ground who know where the problems are; while also offering advice on many issues.

“We look forward to meeting our next minister for agriculture and discussing the future of Irish marts with the hope that they will see the important role that marts play in Ireland – something that has been overlooked this past number of years.

“Week-on-week we are losing more and more farmers; we have already seen the closure of some marts.

“Rural Ireland cannot afford to lose anymore; so the next minister of agriculture has a lot of work to do.

“Intervention is needed immediately.” 

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