Beef farming is a way of life for John Cleary who runs a large finishing enterprise with his brother Michael in Killeigh, Co. Offaly. John is also national beef vice-chairman of the ICSA (Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmers’ Association) which he has been a member of for the past 25 years.
John is in his third year as vice-chair, during which he has worked tirelessly alongside his colleagues for the betterment of the Irish beef sector and family farms in particular. As someone who is fiercely proud of Ireland’s reputation for producing the best beef in the world, John is keen to preserve this image in the face of challenges posed by pressure to reduce methane gas emissions and poor factory prices.
“I’ve been involved in top level meetings in Dublin and Brussels lobbying the Government and the EU to look after our farmers better,” he says.
“Irish farmers have always cared for the environment hand-in-hand with nature and their expertise . Irish farms produce top-class nutritious food that is produced to the highest standards. Yet our future is threatened by climate change measures which should not be considered without a proper economic assessment of how they impact farm incomes and the rural economy.
“Ireland is hugely dependent on agriculture. It contributes up to €20 billion to the national exchequer every year. We are only a drop in the global ocean and are being unfairly treated as far as climate change measures are concerned. They are being forced upon us when other countries are turning a blind eye.
“The world lost over four million hectares of mature forest in 2022 and Brazil alone is responsible for nearly half that total.
“We have this wonderful green image abroad. It would be a travesty if that was lost. We, in the ICSA, are trying to protect that and to guarantee future generations of Irish farmers’ sustainability and viability.
“We are also liaising with the ICSA suckler group with a view to protecting the national suckler herd which is also being threatened by climate objectives. The main suckler producing areas in Ireland are being threatened by increased forestry plantations and rewetting of lands. We need a vibrant suckler herd producing top-quality progeny to drive on our grass fed beef industry.
He continues: “We recently met with the newly-appointed Agri Food Regulator Niamh Lenehan who will play a very important role in bringing transparency into our food supply chain and level the playing field in negotiations between farmers, processors and retailers.
“Farmers are determined to ensure that everyone gets a fair crack of the whip and that everything is transparent. It’s imperative that farmers see that there is no exorbitant margin taken at the expense of other sectors.”
John works closely with ICSA national beef committee chairman Edmund Graham from Monaghan and with ICSA president Dermot Kelleher from Cork, who will soon hand over the reins to Westmeath sheep and suckler farmer Sean McNamara.
“We have a good, hard-working national committee of about 25 representing the two sectors (cattle and beef). Our members are driven by a passion for what they do rather than by financial gain. We’re all voluntary with the association being funded entirely by membership,” explains John, who previously served as ICSA livestock coordinator.
The ICSA was founded in 1993 by farmers who were concerned that there was not an adequate voice for the beef and lamb sectors. At first, these farmers felt that the old ICSA (Irish Cattle Traders and Stockowners’ Association) could be revived. This association had its roots in the 19th century and several references to it appear in James Joyce’s famous work, Ulysses. Following a series of meetings in traditional beef fattening areas, it was decided to relaunch the association. However, while the link with the old ICSA was retained in the name, this was very much a new start-up association that pledged to fight for all drystock farmers, including sheep and suckler farmers.
Some of the earlier members that are still very active farmers today are Pat Lalor of Kilbeggan Organic Porridge Oats, Jimmy Cosgrave, sheep and suckler farmer from Co. Meath, and beef farmer Albert Thompson from Co. Laois. Their vision was to put in place the structures for a professional organisation and this was reflected in the recruitment of a full-time general secretary.
Within a number of years, ICSA had established a full-time office in Portlaoise and the association was put on a very strong footing. The current general secretary is Eddie Punch who is ably assisted by Neassa and Fidelma in the office.
Eddie became general secretary in 1999 and since then, the ICSA membership has grown to over 10,000 members, while its progress has been recognised in being appointed social partners by the Government. The ICSA national executive has over 100 members drawn from the 26 counties on the basis of four members for each county (subject to membership criteria).
John and Michael Cleary’s beef enterprise in Killeenmore near Tullamore finishes continental heifers – which are bought mainly as stores in the West and Midlands. All of their beef is supplied to processors in the Midlands region.
The brothers previously doubled up as beef and dairy farmers before opting to concentrate on the former about a decade ago. The Cleary name is synonymous with Glenisk – the award-winning, family-run dairy and producer of organic milk, cream and yogurt – in nearby Newtown, Killeigh, and it’s no surprise to hear that John and Michael have close links to it.
“I was actually involved in setting it up in the late 1970s along with other family members,” John reveals.
“We were milking cows at the time, but there was no consistency with the milk prices. Price volatility was a common occurrence even back then. We wanted to add value to what we were producing and decided one day sitting around the kitchen table to go down the route of producing dairy products. The next generation brought it to a whole new level and have made Glenisk the household name it is today.”
ICSA National Office
3 Gandon Court,
Telephone: 057 8662120
Email: [email protected]
First published in Irish Tractor & Agri magazine Vol 11 No 5, October/November 2023