MINISTER for Agriculture, Charlie McConalogue has pledged to keep restrictions on mart access under review, following a major outage with the online system, which affected sales nationwide, including those in Clare.
Raising the issue in Dáil Éireann, Deputy Cathal Crowe told the minister there had been anger and confusion among local farmers over the issue that arose at the end of last month.
“The system crashed for about two hours at Sixmilebridge mart,” the Fianna Fáil TD outlined, “with the result that many of the cattle already in pens in the back yard had to be loaded back onto trailers and returned to their home farms. There was consternation in the marts and considerable anger and frustration among farmers.”
The Meelick-based TD said that while sales had managed to resume on the day in question, many farmers were unable to sell their animals. “The mart in Sixmilebridge continued and some sales took place, including the sale of my uncle’s yearlings, but too many animals went home in trailers,” he told the chamber. “Many rural farms in Clare do not have a broadband connection, and for those that have it, the connection is rather slow. Given the age demographic of the farmers going to marts, I am sure they will forgive me for saying they would not be adept at going out to their jeeps and bidding on their tablets or iPhones. That would not come too easily to them.”
Deputy Crowe asserted the view that a blend on online and ringside sales might soon be facilitated again at marts. “The only true way forward, and it is to be hoped we will get there quickly, is a blended sale format where 20 or 25 people can be in the ring,” he said, “and others can be sitting outside in their jeeps bidding as well. That is where we will find the real market price being struck.”
He also highlighted the importance for farmers, at this time of year, to be able to sell livestock.
“Many farmers are budgeting their food rations, silage and hay for the winter,” he noted. “There is a very small window of time during which they want to sell these animals so that they do not end up bringing them into a slatted shed, with those animals further eating into their planned food rations. I hope it is a fluid situation. The guidelines on Covid must be adhered to, but it is to be hoped this issue can be revisited.”
Responding to questions tabled by Deputy Crowe and West Cork Social Democrat TD, Holly Cairns, the minister acknowledged the challenges for farmers, particularly those buying stock. He also paid tribute to mart management and staff for their efforts to-date. He outlined that following the introduction of Level 5 restrictions on October 21, the cattle through-put amounted to 88,000, 94% of the volume for the same period last year. The minister also asserted that blended sales are “the way forward”, and said that they enabled more people to participate, thus keeping prices up.
“I acknowledge that the circumstances are really challenging and I understand the difficulties farmers have,” Minister McConalogue said. “I understand the challenges that mart managers have faced in adapting but, apart from [October 24] when 16 marts were affected when the online platform went down for over two hours, albeit with only four sales cancelled, the system has been continuing to improve. We are now seeing an increase in volumes and confidence.”
He added that, “The clearances are very good and the prices are holding up from a seller’s point of view, but it is challenging from a buyer’s point of view. It is a reflection of the fact we are in Level 5 and the national challenge we face in dealing with the pandemic. I will continue to keep the matter under very close review and I take on board what the Deputies have said.”