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'It's like the stock exchange closing': Farmers at a loss to sell their cattle as marts close for several weeks

The Department of Agriculture is currently in discussions with farmers around potential measures to support them.

Stock image of farmers at a livestock mart.
Stock image of farmers at a livestock mart.
Image: Eamonn Farrell

FARMING GROUPS ARE in discussions with the Department of Agriculture to look at ways to support farmers after Taoiseach Leo Varadkar yesterday announced that farmers’ marts, where livestock is bought and sold, are to close due to the Covid-19 emergency. 

Marts were included in a long list of non-essential services, including restaurants, cafes and hairdressers, which are closed from today in a measure designed to encourage members of the public to restrict their movements. 

Farming groups, however, fear the closure of marts, where livestock is sold on specific days every week, will decimate rural communities which rely on the farming industry to support the local economy. 

The move comes as large fast-food outlets such as McDonald’s and Supermacs – which purchases a large portion of beef from Irish farmers – also suspended orders and closed their doors this week. 

“The overall picture is that you may be dependent on a mart to sell the stock you have and you don’t have an option to sell direct to a meat factory,” Eddie Punch, Secretary General of the Irish Cattle and Sheepfarmers Association (ICSA), said. 

“There’s a cohort of farmers who lost their obvious outlet to get money and who have to sell stock on a regular basis. There’s huge trade this time of year to buy cattle to be put out to feed on grass and this is a good time to sell cattle.” 

Smaller farmers often sell their cattle to other farmers with larger lands for grazing, as opposed to selling to meat processing factories direct. 

It is understood that talks are underway between the Department of Agriculture and farming representative groups to continue to use the marts as an administrator of the sale of livestock but without large crowds that would normally attend auctions. 

Alternatively, farmers could resort to selling their stock online but that could involve additional paperwork that is not needed at marts, which can scan the barcode associated with an animal and pull up the relevant information around things like health checks.

Stock exchange 

The ICSA said it would encourage the Department to allow marts to continue to facilitate transactions, Punch said. 

“Marts are seen as a place where you can go in and see what your stock is worth. If you imagine the stock exchange closing for a couple of months, how would you know what a share was worth and the answer is you couldn’t.

“The reason marts got going in the 1960s was this idea of having visibility and transparency around what stock is really worth. If you don’t have marts then that’s gone and the potential now is that people will permitted to sell direct to a buyer.

“But the problem with that is the vendor is in the dark, so is the purchaser and they’re both trying to do a deal in the dark, and in that case the smaller-scale farmers who might even be part time, they’re not confident. The mart guarantees payment and it’s governed by Property Services Regulatory Authority.”

Concern has also been raised that if marts close for several months, they may not reopen as the losses in that time will have been significant. 

Farmers can continue to trade with each other while trying to engage in social distancing as per the HSE guidelines but marts will be closed until 19 April at the earliest.

The Department of Agriculture said it will work with farmers to ensure livestock sales can continue. 

“The temporary closure of livestock marts is an unfortunate but necessary measure and the Department will work with the stakeholders on contingency measures to ensure that, as far as possible, livestock sales are facilitated,” a spokesperson said. 

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