Sinn Féin spokesperson on Agriculture, Matt Carthy TD, has criticised the Minister for Agriculture for his failure to seek an accommodation for livestock buyers to permit attendance at marts on a restrictive basis.
Teachta Carthy described as “naïve” Minister McConalogue’s position as to the consequences of mart closures.
Speaking during a debate with the Minister in the early hours of Tuesday morning, the Cavan-Monaghan TD raised the poor broadband connectivity in many rural communities and said that the current arrangements were actually leading to congregations outside of marts which are possibly creating a greater Covid-19 risk.
Teachta Carthy said:
“Food production has rightly been deemed an essential service throughout the entire pandemic. The one part of the food production system that has been severally curtailed is the only part that farmers have any control – the marts.
“Farmers understand that restrictions are necessary and ask only that marts be respected as a critical component of the food production system.
“Allowing marts to be open to some buyers with strict physical distancing measures is the most sensible and practical way of allowing sales to continue while protecting public health.
“At present buyers are congregating in cars and gathering around laptops without social distancing so they can assist each other with the online purchasing process.
“I am therefore appealing again to the Minister to represent Irish Farmers and to show some common sense in this situation. He needs to stop being naïve and realise that the current position is causing hardship and frustration among mart-goers and managements”.
Exchange between Matt Carthy TD & Minister McConalogue
4th November 2020
The only aspect of food production that has been severely curtailed during the level 5 restrictions is the operation of marts. I have never seen an issue cause so much antagonism, anxiety and frustration among the farming community and the marts. The current system is not working. I am sure the Minister has heard the stories from several marts around the State. This needs to be addressed. Will the Minister intervene and urge easing of the restrictions to allow some physical activity to take place in our marts?
As the Deputy will be aware, on 19 October the Taoiseach announced that the whole country would move to level 5 of the framework for living with Covid-19 for a period of six weeks, starting at midnight on Wednesday, 21 October. This decision was made on foot of strong evidence presented to the Government of a potentially grave situation arising in the weeks ahead. For marts this meant a return to similar conditions under which they operated in the first phase of the pandemic.
The Taoiseach has called on us all to work together to suppress the virus and to reopen as much of our society and economy as possible when it is safe to do so. The core responsibility of the Government is to protect lives and public health while also protecting livelihoods and supporting the wider economy and society.
Protecting the agri-food sector and people in rural communities was at the centre of my Department’s direction on 20 October that buyers could not physically congregate in sales rings and that all marts conduct sales by brokering transactions or using online platforms only. Marts have been using online platforms since April. Although marts are operating sales online, buyers may view livestock for sale at the mart premises and individual appointment times are allocated to individual buyers to view or collect livestock. From a position where few marts had online systems in place in April, there has been a rapid take-up of the new systems by marts over recent months. The vast majority of marts currently have online systems in place and are operating through online platforms. Some remaining marts are in the process of installing such platforms. Thousands of cattle and sheep have been bought and sold successfully online recently. As with any new technology, however, there have been some glitches, which have been dealt with. Marts have been operating smoothly in recent times.
This is undoubtedly a challenging time. My Department is closely monitoring the situation and we are seeing some positive aspects of online sales at marts, despite some reports that marts and potential buyers have not been able to access the online platforms due to connectivity issues, in particular last Saturday week.
It is not good enough. Deputy McConalogue is the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine. He needs to stand up for our farming communities. Let us take some things as given. Marts are doing everything in their power to ensure that the online facilities are up to standard. They are the people telling us they are not working effectively. The people calling me – they must be calling the Minister as well – are farmers from right across the country who are telling me stories of how their animals have to be taken home and how they have taken a financial hit as a result.
This is not about whether or not restrictions need to be put in place. We accept, of course, that they do. This is about what constitutes essential activity. The only aspect of food production that is not considered an essential activity is the one area within the market chain over which farmers have any semblance of control. They are begging the Minister to intervene, to stand up for them and to call for marts to be able to operate on a restricted basis that would allow some buyers who cannot currently access the market to do so.
I have been monitoring the situation very closely and talking to farmers and mart operators up and down the country. As I have outlined, there was a difficulty with one online platform provider last Saturday week which led to four marts out of 30 not being able to complete their sales. However, overall there has been a lot of success with the sales operating online. Very important from my point of view is the fact that prices have been holding up and have indeed improved across many livestock categories. That is the number one priority for farmers. Certainly for those selling this has worked reasonably well and is continuing to improve. For those buying it has posed more difficulties. Farmers and purchasers like to see the animals physically as opposed to just online or before the sale. We are, however, in level 5 and, unfortunately, not in a position to operate level 3 restrictions in level 5. The bottom line is that I am monitoring this very closely and prices are holding up, and for farmers that is the most important thing.
There is a touch of naivety in the Minister’s response. In my county, County Monaghan, for example, 48% of households do not have access to adequate broadband. That is the Government’s own figure. I would imagine, and I think everyone would accept, that if we were to take the farming community alone, that figure would be much higher.
Where does the Minister think these farmers are buying, even when they go online?
They are meeting in car parks and in cars. Many people are congregating in a small space with one young lad operating the phone because in some cases we are talking about elderly farmers. That is not doing anything for physical distancing or protecting us from Covid. The farmers who have to do this would be much better off if they were standing physically distanced around a mart ring for a restricted period.
I am not just making up these things; these are the calls I have taken today and over the weekend from buyers and sellers who have pleaded with me to make the case in as strong as possible terms to the Minister to stand up for them. I am making that case once again as sincerely as I can. I urge the Minister to intervene on this issue.
I thank the Deputy. I have had many discussions with many farmers who would prefer to be operating level 3 restrictions and I have no doubt the Deputy’s message is the same as mine, which is there is a personal responsibility on everyone to act responsibly for their own health, and for the health of their neighbours and friends, by following social distancing and the public health guidelines in all situations, including outside marts.
The personal responsibility is on everyone in this regard. The bottom line is that I have been monitoring this very closely on a daily basis and, on particularly important days, on an hourly basis. Prices have held up strongly and have increased in many instances. Things have operated pretty smoothly since the one Saturday when the livestock platform went down. Volumes are increasing as farmers become more adapted to it, I will bet not without some hardship and inconvenience, but we are at level 5. The prices are holding up, which is the number one priority for farmers.