Connemara beef farmer Brendan O’Malley can see the writing on the wall for farming families in rural Ireland. The O’Malleys have worked their rugged holding in the shadow of the Maumturk Mountains for generations, but like many other families in rural Ireland, Mr O’Malley fears his generation may be the last.
As a suckler farmer, he has been hit hard by a combination of falling beef prices, uncertainty over Brexit and new challenges to the industry brought about by climate change.
He believes small-scale beef farming is now a “deeply demoralising” industry to be involved in and suckler farmers in particular are being painted as the “devil incarnate”.
“Farmers are desperate at the moment. They are absolutely desperate. You can be a full-time farmer with a belief in what you are doing but all you see are the prices going down year after year,” he said.
“There needs to be a better price for beef. If you go to a restaurant you might pay €22 for a steak dinner. If you go to the mart you are selling beef at less than €2 a pound. That is just unsustainable.
“It is hugely difficult. It is deeply demoralising to put time and effort into an animal, calving, getting up on bad nights going out to the sheds, all of it. You meet all the regulations, you do everything possible for that animal, and you come to the end of the year and you are getting very little reward for what you are doing.
“There needs to be a serious look at prices and that needs to take in everyone – from the factories to the supermarkets to the consumers. At the moment it is just impossible for farmers. You can feel the anger [among farmers], they are annoyed and they are right to be.”
The past 24 months have seen massive changes to the landscape of farming in Ireland with new groups such as the Beef Plan Movement and the Independent Farmers of Ireland challenging the supremacy of the Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA) and the Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers Association (ICMSA).
Mr O’Malley believes the different farming groups must now put the future viability of the Irish family farm as their main focus.
“There has been a splintering. Farmers are speaking with more voices now than they ever did before,” he said.
“When you look at the different forums that came together to look at beef prices [in the wake of the Beef Plan protests] it seems to be very difficult to get everyone singing the same tune. Each of them [the farming organisations] came to the table with their own policy.
“From my own perspective, I think that sustaining the family farm should be the mantra going forward. They are hugely important, family farms give a base to rural Ireland. If we lose these family farms from rural Ireland what are we going to do with them [the farmers]? Where are the jobs? Where are the houses in towns and cities? We’ve got a housing crisis.
“If you let the family farm go you are creating other problems in rural Ireland. This is already leading to massive problems with mental health and depression. That will all come into play more than it already is.”
While the farming organisations have an important role to play, Mr O’Malley believes that any real change must be driven by Minister for Agriculture Michael Creed.
“The factories and supermarkets are not going to find wisdom on this all by themselves. At the end of the day the Minister [Creed] is the man with the power here. He is the one who regulates the system,” he said.
“It is imperative that some sort of decent proportion of the price [of beef] be paid to the farmer. Farmers are producing beef to the highest standard all over this country.”