Joe Brady and his ancestors have been farming at Drumnagar in County Cavan, Ireland, since at least the year 1725. “That’s as far back as the records go,” he says. After nearly 300 years of being handed down generation to generation, it’s easy to see why this is something more than a business to him.
On a bright, breezy April morning, the 200-acre beef farm likely looks as well as it ever has. But these are challenging times for Ireland’s beef farmers. Irish beef is world-renowned. Some 90% of it is exported and pictures of farmers like Joe, standing in their lush, green fields, are used to advertise it around the world.
But there’s a big Brexit-shaped shadow hanging over Ireland’s agriculture sector, and the beef sector is especially vulnerable. Of the €1.5 billion ($1.7 billion) worth of beef Ireland exported in 2017, a colossal 46% went to Britain.
With the possibility still very much live that we will all wake up to a no-deal Brexit in a week’s time, farmers like Joe are deeply worried about what new tariffs will mean for Ireland’s main export market.
Joe Brady’s family have farmed in Laragh, Co Cavan, since at least 1725. But Brexit and other concerns have caused great uncertainty for farmers across Ireland
“If there’s a hard Brexit and we have a situation where there are WTO tariffs on our meat which goes into England, which is around 50% of the total, that would be the end of the beef industry in this country,” he said.
What’s the beef?
On a beef farm like Joe’s, the system is highly cyclical. Calves are born all year round from within his stock, they are then reared on his grass and eventually, when they reach maturity, sold to meat processors who develop them for retail markets.
EU farm subsidies, grants and the other benefits of the bloc’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) have helped keep small and medium-sized beef farms going in Ireland for decades. Even with that support, many beef farmers in Ireland have second jobs, as they need an alternative source of income to make a living.
The cost of rearing cattle to the standards Ireland’s global beef reputation demands are high and sharp fluctuations in the price a farmer like Joe gets for his beef can have a profound effect, as the margins in which he operates are extremely tight.
Calves are born all year round from within Joe’s stock and are then reared on his grass
Farmers in Ireland are long used to living with uncertainty over the price of beef, but the almost three-year-long Brexit crisis has created a level of uncertainty unlike anything Joe has seen during his lifetime of farming.
He believes that if the UK leaves the EU without a deal, there will simply be no viable economic future in the type of beef farming he is engaged in, as it will instantly become heavily loss-making. It’s for that reason that he is considering returning to a type of farming he hasn’t engaged in for several years — dairy.
Just under 40 kilometers (25 miles) southeast from here is the village of Moynalty in county Meath. The land in this part of Ireland is considerably more fertile than in the neighboring county of Cavan and over the last few years, several disillusioned beef farmers have decided to sell their interest in beef and invest in the dairy sector instead.
One such farmer is Sean Gilsenan. Last year he took a big punt on dairy, investing in an extensive robot-powered dairy automation system from scratch. Previously he had been a mixed farmer, combining beef and tillage farming with an old-fashioned dairy system. He still retains an interest in all three, but he says dairy will be the focus of his farm going forward.
For him, beef farming in Ireland is already too expensive to be viable. “You are producing beef in a way which is not particularly efficient,” he said. “It’s too expensive, the amount of investment needed. If you put the money into the post office (a local savings bank) you would get a greater return than you will on a beef farm.”
Sean Gilsenan is a mixed farmer, combining tillage farming, beef farming and dairy farming. However, increasingly he sees dairy as the most viable option
Brexit uncertainty has tipped things fully over the edge. Even though he is now in his 70s, he took the decision to borrow heavily to invest in his new automated dairy farm, as he believes it is the only way to make his holding economically viable for his sons.
“This is a long-term investment,” he said. “It’s as simple as this: I farm 420 acres. And the only way it can be made viable is this way.”
The end of the line?
Brexit has its own implications for Ireland’s vibrant dairy sector — which counts the dominant butter brand Kerrygold among its most successful creations. The price of milk, like beef, can also fluctuate and for Sean, a few cents in the price per liter would make a big difference to his burgeoning business.
But as things stand, it’s the beef sector which is most vulnerable to the wiles and whims of Westminster.For tens of thousands of farmers across Ireland, this is about more than just economics: the fabric of the country’s rural life itself is at stake.
“I could see land being abandoned,” said Joe Brady, considering a worst case outcome.
“Do we want to go the way of the US,” asked Sean, “where it’s all consolidation on huge ranches, where there is no space for any social element whatsoever?”
The automated milking system records and collects a massive amount of data on every individual cow, giving Sean valuable insights into the overall operation.
Such concerns are shared by farmers across the region, says Liz Ormiston, chairperson of the Cavan Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA) branch. “The beef farmers are very disillusioned,” she said.
She has had her own glimpse of what’s at stake for Irish agriculture. She remembers on her honeymoon in 1981, meeting a farmer in rural New York’s Catskill Mountains, who told her he was beginning to struggle to make a living,
On her next visit to the area in 1998, he told her he was packing up and selling the farm to a land agent. By the time of her most recent visit, in 2017, the farm had fallen into complete ruin.
“It was very sad to see, the land completely overgrown and neglected, the buildings falling into the ground,” she said. “The same can happen here. The family farm as we know it, the one I grew up on…I don’t think it’s going to last.”
Cows “queue” to enter the automatic milking machines.
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