The weather difficulties earlier this year brought the value of our food staples, and the farmers who produce these essential necessities, into focus, writes Matt O’Keeffe.
Social media was awash with pictures of empty bread shelves and milk refrigerators, as consumers scrambled to stock up on the simple, wholesome, essential food items to tide them over during the “Beast from the East” and Storm Emma. These two food items are taken for granted in normal circumstances, and are very often undervalued, discounted and used as a means of attracting shoppers into stores to make a profit by selling consumers their other wares.
Food is the first priority
For newly elected Fresh Milk Producers (FMP) chairman, Jim Mulhall, it was refreshing to see his product fully appreciated in the run-up to the snowstorm. Jim milks 150 pedigree Friesian cows in Danville, on the outskirts of Kilkenny City.
“Preparing for the storm back in early March, we saw how people reordered their priorities. When a disaster looms people prioritise the basics, including food and shelter. Everything else is in second place. Even in a modern society with mass communication and modern transport infrastructure, food is still the first priority where there is any possibility of even a temporary shortage.
"As a food producer, I found it encouraging that food, and food production and availability, were the top priorities on most people’s minds. There have been times when milk was price discounted on supermarket shelves to entice consumers in to purchase other goods. All of a sudden, because of a possible shortage during the snow, it was the most valuable food item in the supermarket, along with bread, meat and vegetables. It took a snowstorm to put food back up where it should be in the order of life priorities.”
Committed to milk production
There has been significant investment on dairy farms that produce milk for immediate consumption. Allied to that, there has been investment by dairy processors to streamline the process of preparing the milk for the supermarket shelves, the door-to-door delivery service and, ultimately, milk consumers’ fridges, as Jim explains: “We have 1,000 dairy farmers exclusively dedicated to the production of fresh milk for immediate consumption. It involves a higher-cost production system because a large volume of annual output must be produced during the winter months when grass is scarce and cow maintenance is more expensive. We get a premium on the general milk price for that production and there is ongoing engagement with our processors to ensure our members are rewarded for the extra cost, labour and commitment in producing milk right across the year. It is generally accepted, and proven by Teagasc, that we need a price of at least 40 cents per litre to justify the extra production costs involved. When the general milk price falls, as is happening right now, that impacts the price that fresh milk producers are paid, even though the price of milk in a carton on a supermarket shelf doesn’t fall and our costs of production certainly don’t fall.”
Jim does not like the current campaign against milk: “If a person wants to choose a plant-based vegan diet, they are perfectly entitled to do so. I have no issue with that decision at all. But when you read and view some of the extreme messages that are being bandied around on social media and on public billboards, quite often anonymously and without reference to source, I take personal offence. While we have seen examples of that kind of anti-dairy campaigning in Ireland, it is even more extreme and prolific across the Irish Sea in the UK. Farmers have even been branded as rapists and murderers, with personal attacks on individual farmers taking place. There have even been death threats against dairy farmers in the UK.
“The reality is that farmers take great care of their livestock. We have extremely high animal welfare standards in this country. We do take offence at some of the allegations that are levelled at us. There is just so much misleading information, including video clips being publicised online.”