MUSHROOMS CRISIS

mushroom

MUSHROOM INDUSTRY ‘IN TURMOIL’ SINCE BREXIT VOTE

IFA SEEKS GOVERNMENT ASSISTANCE FOR PRODUCERS

Michael Fisher    Northern Standard  Thursday 29th September p.1

The Irish mushroom industry has been thrown into turmoil since the UK voted to withdraw from the European Union, according to producers. Chief Executive of Monaghan Mushrooms Ronnie Wilson said they were facing a very difficult crisis, partially caused by the change in the rate between the Euro and sterling. The IFA’s mushroom committee chairman Gerry Reilly said €7m worth of exports and 130 jobs had been lost since the Brexit vote in June.

Both men made a presentation on Tuesday to the Oireachtas agriculture committee alongside Micheál McGovern, chair of Monaghan-based Commercial Mushroom Producers (CMP), Lesley Codd of Codd Mushrooms from Tullow, Co Carlow; and Rowena Dwyer, IFA chief economist.

Among the legislators who heard their evidence was Senator Robbie Gallagher from Monaghan (Fianna Fáil). He said it was imperative the government in the forthcoming budget provided the industry with a bridge to get them over this difficult period.

mushyrooms.jpgCurrently, Irish growers produce around 70,000 tonnes of mushrooms, of which 80%, worth €120m at farm gate (double the value of Irish potatoes), is marketed to UK multiples through a network of marketing agents. There are around sixty growers and they employ 3,500 people, most of them in rural Ireland, especially Monaghan. Only four European countries produce more than Ireland.

Mr Reilly told the committee: “Since the UK vote to leave the EU, the mushroom industry in Ireland has been thrown into turmoil, and growers are in loss-making territory, resulting from the sudden and significant weakening of sterling,” he said.

WEAKENING OF STERLING

The weakening of the sterling is having such a damaging effect because the marketing companies that sell Irish mushrooms negotiate their contracts in sterling. In addition, mushroom prices are forward agreed, generally for contract periods of up to twelve months. As they are fixed contracts, mushroom producers cannot renegotiate the price the receive.

MMushrooms.jpgThe immediate difficulty is that contracts have been agreed in sterling, when sterling was at a much stronger position against the Euro. For the first six months of this year, the average exchange rate was £0.78 to €1. This meant a payment of £1 was worth €1.28 to Irish producers. Today, that same pound is worth only €1.16, sterling having weakened by over 13% since the Brexit vote. CMP estimates that €10m will be lost on an annual basis across the CMP farms in the Republic, translating to an average loss per farm of somewhere between €250,000 and €300,000.

greilly.jpg

IFA Horticulture Chair Gerry Reilly

Mr Reilly reminded the Oireachtas members: “mushrooms are a perishable product with a relatively short shelf life, produced 52 weeks a year. The ‘best before’ date is five – seven days after harvesting. There is no viable alternative market for such a highly perishable fresh product.

Currently the UK is our only market. We send more than 50 Artic loads to the UK, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Resulting from the closure of the Russian market, mushrooms from eastern Europe, produced at much lower production costs, are now entering the UK retail market and displacing Irish produce.

mushroomwhite.jpgSHORT-TERM SUPPORTS

On behalf of the IFA and CMP, Mr Reilly called on the government to introduce a number of short-term supports:

  1. Immediate payment by the government of the producer organisation (PO) funding due to the CMP (53 producers) for their 2015 programme.
  2. A temporary reduction in the lower rate of employer PRSI (from 8.5% to 4.25%) to be introduced in October’s budget to directly affect employment costs for mushroom producers.
  3. An extension of the tax relief measure for startup companies to existing companies in the mushroom sector. This would be capped at €15,000 per annum, thereby recognising the limitations imposed by State aid rules for the agriculture sector.
  4. No increase in excise rates on agricultural diesel or other road fuels.
  5. Direct support to mushroom producers through CAP market support measures.
  6. Agricultural Diesel – there must be no increase in excise rates for Marked Gas Oil (agricultural diesel). In addition, given the importance of maintaining competitiveness, the IFA would have to question any move by the Government to increase excise rates on other road fuels at this time.

mushroooms.jpgPOLISH PRODUCT

The IFA submission stated that a significant and longer-term market pressure for Irish producers is the foothold that has been gained in the UK retail market by Polish product. This is very worrying as their cost base is only a fraction of ours e.g. their labour rate is 28% of the minimum wage in Ireland.

The dominant power of the retailers and significant food price deflation in fresh produce, has resulted in serious downward price pressure on our mushroom exports, which has now been compounded by the sterling decline.

Mushroom production is highly labour intensive and the threats now faced by the industry could result in significant job losses. It will also impact on the tillage sector, as the mushroom industry is a significant purchaser of wheaten straw and on the poultry sector, as poultry litter is used in mushroom compost.

In the past, a reduction in production or closure of a mushroom business was replaced by increased production from fellow growers. However, market share lost by the Irish mushroom industry as a result of the current crisis will simply be replaced by other European suppliers.

The IFA has met the Minister for Horticulture Andrew Doyle to impress on him the immediate need to take a number of actions to support our mushroom sector in the wake of the light of Brexit and the weakening of sterling. We also note the recent comments by Minister for Agriculture Michael Creed acknowledging the particular issues of the mushroom sector, and his commitment to provide support to the sector in the Budget process, Mr Reilly said.

Wilson.jpg

Ronnie Wilson, CEO Monaghan Mushrooms

A DIFFICULT CRISIS

Ronnie Wilson of Monaghan Mushrooms said the situation now was very different from eight years ago when the industry was expanding and they were able to compete throughout Europe. He said the two problems for producers were retail discounters and food deflation. The concept of cheap food was now politically very acceptable, he told the committee.

“It’s a very difficult situation. If we let the industry go into freefall that really would be a disaster”, he said. We must stop the industry from going into freefall, he emphasised. Already they were not able to supply all their contracts which were mainly with UK multiples. They were currently purchasing product in Poland and Holland to service the UK contracts.

“We can continue to do so for a little while but can’t go on very long”, he said. The first thing they had to ensure was to stop producers closing, because contracts would be under threat if that happened.

Mr Wilson said one measure the government could take that would be very supportive of the industry would cost very little. The industry required flexibility of labour and worked unsociable hours. He wondered if it would be possible to have a permit scheme introduced to bring in harvesters from non-EU countries in eastern Europe and that would be a very advantageous element, in his view. One or two growers had stopped operating because of the currency exchange rate, but there was also an element of some labour difficulties.

The chair of the committee Pat Deering TD told him that was a suggestion they could include in their budget submission as well.

Gallagher.jpg

Senator Robbie Gallagher

EFFECT ON MONAGHAN

Senator Robbie Gallagher from Monaghan (Fianna Fáil) congratulated the mushroom industry representatives on their achievements over the past thirty years. He said they deserved great credit for building up the industry and creating 3500 jobs.

He knew Ronnie Wilson quite well, who he said had been a leading name in the mushroom industry for up to thirty years. He was a very large employer and they were fortunate to have him in County Monaghan. Of the 3500 jobs in the industry, around 1000 are in Monaghan and of those up to half were employed by Mr Wilson.

So it was a particularly difficult issue for a county like Monaghan. No other county was more exposed to this crisis than Monaghan, he said. Senator Gallagher told the committee he was sure this was a particularly stressful time for everybody in the industry, when external factors over which they had very little control could determine the future. “I can only imagine what you and everybody in the industry is going through”, he told the committee.

Words like ‘crisis’ and ‘freefall’ had been used in the presentation and it was clear to see that they were not being overused. Senator Gallagher said it was imperative that the government stepped in at this time to give the mushroom producers a bridge to get over this difficult period and to reasses where they were going.

It seemed to him that there were two main issues, namely the current threat from the fluctuation of sterling and the threat from Polish producers. The Irish producers seemed to have more concern about the first threat, he said, judging by their presentation. He wondered where they saw the industry going in future and were they confident about it? In view of the freefall in the industry he also wondered if they had had any contact with any government department in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum in the UK.

INTERCONNECTOR DAY11

This section dealt with human beings: land use

The inspectors heard from the Meath IFA Chairman Diarmuid Lally (also representing the IFA in Monaghan and Cavan), Kingscourt IFA (Eugene Lambe a dairy farmer from Cordoagh) and the ICMSA President John Comer and local representative Lorcan McCabe from Bailieborough. Lorcan Mc Cabe who is Chairperson of the ICMSA Farm Business Committee and is a Cavan man who is here today with me to represent the views of our members in the North-East.

Diarmuid Lally claimed there had been inadequate consultation with farmers by EirGrid. There had been an inadequate consideration of alternatives such as undergrounding. The cost of undergrounding had started off at 25 times the cost of an overhead line, but now the cost was almost equal, he said.

Mr Lally claimed there was no need for the interconnector. It was about sending electricity to Northern Ireland and had absolutely nothing to do with the North East. He said the NI Assembly had not yet clarified its plans for the power stations at Coolkeeragh and Ballylumford and there might be no need for transferring the extra electricity produced in the Republic to Northern Ireland. He wondered why a coastal route had not been chosen along the eastern seaboard, at the time the machinery had been in place to lay the underground cable connecting Rush in Co. Dublin to Prestatyn in Wales (the East-West interconnector).

The IFA Meath Chairman said the approach of EirGrid to the farming community had been arrogant. There was no engagement with the community. Mr Lally raised questions about the effect of the line on the health and wellbeing of farm families and workers. He also wondered what the effect would be on the single farm payments received by farmers for working their land, if EirGrid constructed one or more pylons on their property. Who would be compensating the farmer?, he asked.

He also made a number of points regarding health and safety on farms and asked what studies the company had done about potential crop disease or soil problems arising from the construction work. He wondered how farmers would do their business because of disruption during the eight to twelve weeks it took to construct a pylon on their land. He also asked EirGrid about the effect the power lines might have on the use of GPS equipment in machines such as combine harvesters.

The ICMSA President John Comer said the interconnector plan was of major concern to their members in the North-East and they opposed it. He said the identified route mainly traversed open countryside, having been designed to avoid towns and villages and clusters of rural housing. The proposed route would have the vast majority of the pylons erected in existing farmland and the power lines would overhang farm land. Mr Comer said there was deep frustration in rural communities on this issue and how it had been managed to date.

He said the ICMSA believed that the importance of the agri-food sector to export driven growth in the economy could not be underestimated with the total value of food and drink exports from Ireland in 2014 reaching a record of €10.5 billion. There had been considerable investment and energy expended over many years on promoting the very successful “Clean and Green” Irish brand abroad. The Association believed there was potential for considerable damage to Ireland’s reputation by the erection of large pylons through some of the most productive farmland in the country.

One of the main contentions was the reluctance by EirGrid to examine alternatives to the construction of the pylons, which would dominate the landscape and tower above homes and landscape features. The ICMSA was acutely aware of the importance of a properly functioning electricity network in terms of promoting foreign direct investment and jobs for the region, but it believed this must not be at an unnecessary cost to farm and rural families and their livelihoods. In this context, the ICMSA supported the undergrounding of cables to ensure minimum impact on the rural environment.

Mr Comer said the people who depend on it for a living believed a detailed independent cost-benefit analysis should be carried out and published on undergrounding before any final decision was made. In addition, the ICMSA believed a comprehensive independent Environmental Impact Study must be carried out which specifically addressed the impact from a farming, agri-economic and rural perspective.

ICMSA believes that all major farming enterprises including dairying, beef, sheep, equine, horticulture, forestry, tillage and poultry would be impacted by the proposed scheme and has concerns regarding the fact that not one single study of farming activities has been carried out and no alternative measures have been proposed. In addition, this proposal was likely significantly to devalue agricultural holdings. The construction of the transmission lines and associated large structures would significantly disrupt farming operations on an ongoing basis. Agricultural land would be rendered sterile along the 1km wide corridor which would traverse the countryside, Mr Comer said.

He called for further research to be done on the impact of electromagnetic fields (EMF) on living organisms. EMF was a particular concern for dairy farmers and the possible impact on somatic cell count and the associated costs. The ICMSA President pointed out that there were health and safety issues that needed to be addressed.

He continued: “It is a widely held view that that these high voltage power lines and pylons are the most objectionable form of public utility infrastructure on land. In addition to farming related issues they impose significant negative effects in relation to visual and environmental impact, land and property devaluation, and health and safety concerns. The ICMSA, on behalf of its farming members, supports the North East Pylon Pressure Campaign and their legitimate objective of demanding that these lines be placed underground.”

Responding to the points raised by the IFA and ICMSA representatives a property consultant for EirGrid Tom Corr repeated his view that the development of overhead lines was not expected to have any effect on farmland prices. There was no evidence of farm prices being impacted by the more than 400km of 400kV lines and 1800km of 220kV power lines already in existence in the Republic. He said international research showed that the impact of overhead lines diminished with time.

Mr Corr said that coming as he did from County Monaghan, it was his own experience over more than 30 years that he best customers were not out off by a property for sale that had an overhead power line.

Aidan Geoghegan, project manager for the EirGrid interconnector, told the hearing he could say with confidence that overhead lines did not interfere with GPS systems and the conductors would not affect the system signals.

Agricultural consultant Con Curtin for EirGrid said the concerns over electromagnetic fields around the lines had already been dealt with. The farmer would continue to have use of the land under the 400kV lines without any significant change. He said safety at sites could be managed and that farmers already had to operate machinery under overhead lines such as telephone wires.

Regarding the possible spread of animal disease such as TB from badgers, Mr Curtin said the risk was imperceptible. Vehicles used by contractors at a farm would be disinfected where required. Livestock would not be allowed to stray between holdings, he added. Regarding claims that Ireland’s green image for food could be affected, Mr Curtin said there was no reason for it to be affected. EirGrid pointed out that there were agri-food ventures in other counties such as Clare that had overhead high voltage lines.

Finally, another mapping error was revealed. Mr Curtin corrected a land use evaluation in the application by EirGrid surrounding a proposed tower no. 125 near Annagh in Co. Monaghan. The pylon would be located in a 1ha field and it was assumed that it was part of a particular holding, but the wrong one was outlined on the map originally provided. The impact of the tower on the corrected holding is now said to be slight adverse and in the adjoining land parcel it is now described as imperceptible.

MALCOLM BRODIE RIP

Irish_Football_Association-logo-A3B92E9ED1-seeklogo_comThe green and white army of Northern Ireland football was never a big priority for RTÉ, who always followed the fortunes of the green shirts of the Republic of Ireland. Occasionally there were stories of success, especially the World Cup victory over hosts Spain in 1982 and qualification for the second round. I also remember covering the appointment as NI manager of Lawrie Sanchez, a past hero of mine when he was with Wimbledon FC and who I was glad to see getting the job. There was however always one constant factor when speaking about soccer here in the North: Malcolm Brodie, who has now passed to his eternal reward.

Malcolm Brodie (BBC picture)

Malcolm Brodie (BBC picture)

The former sports editor of the Belfast Telegraph was a fount of knowledge about the international side and reported on fourteen World Cup finals. He was always willing to share that wisdom with other media colleagues, including news reporters who did not specialise in sport. He also looked after junior colleagues. I was interested to hear on Talkback (BBC Radio Ulster around 20:30) yesterday a tribute from Alan Green of the BBC.

Alan is the same age as myself and our paths crossed briefly in London in the 1970s. After graduating from Queen’s, he started as a BBC News Trainee  in April 1975, a year after I had. My traineeeship brought me to local radio Birmingham, where I got my chance to combine sports reporting with news, thanks to Jim Rosenthal and his successor Nick Owen. Alan got an attachment back to BH in Belfast and later moved to Manchester, to begin a lengthy career as a commentator with BBC Radio Sport.

Alan Green

Alan Green (BBC)

Alan mentioned to Wendy Austin how Malcolm had taken him under his wing when he was still a student at Methodist College, interested in sports reporting. He took him on as a “copy boy” at weekends over forty years ago. When Alan landed the sports job in Manchester, Malcolm asked the sports “mafia” there, who held him in high regard, to help the fledgling commentator.

Speaking on the same programme, the Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson said the journalist was a great friend:-

Alex Ferguson (Man.Utd.picture)

Alex Ferguson (Man.Utd.picture)

“He cut to the chase, quite simply that’s how he was, you know. He was straight-talking and one thing I always admired about him, he never changed his accent, which is very difficult living in a place like Belfast. He never lost the energy to do his job and he obviously enjoyed doing it and had enthusiasm about it. It’s very hard to retain enthusiasm for your job right up to your 80s.”

Malcolm was from Scotland and had been evacuated to County Armagh during the second world war. He began his career with a local newspaper in Portadown. He then moved in 1943 to the Belfast Telegraph, where he set up the first sports desk. His achievements as a journalist were recognised with the award of an MBE and the conferring of an honorary doctorate by the University of Ulster. He received the FIFA Jules Rimet award in 2004. The FIFA President Sepp Blatter, who was a personal friend, described him as “one of the true greats of sports journalism”. More tributes can be found here at the Irish Football Association. He was 86 and was a member of the Belfast and District Branch of the National Union of Journalists. However there are some former staff at the Belfast Telegraph who will tell you a very different story about his attitude to the union during a strike. His funeral service will take place on Monday (February 4th) at 12 noon in Cregagh Presbyterian Church, Belfast, then to Roselawn Crematorium for Committal at 2.30 p.m. Family flowers only. Donations in lieu of flowers have been requested to Chest/Heart/Stroke or Guide Dogs for the Blind.

Malcolm Brodie (Belfast Telegraph)

Malcolm Brodie (Belfast Telegraph) 1926-2013