Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Wednesday, 28 February 2024

Joint Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine

Compliance with the Nitrates Directive and Implications for Ireland: Discussion (Resumed)

Mr. Eddie Punch:

There is a real concern here about what rural Ireland will look like in the future. A few years ago, we did not spend enough time having a big-picture view of how we get the balance right between dairy, tillage and livestock enterprises. All of this regulation being driven from Brussels and accepted in Dublin is making it harder and harder for the family farm model to survive. There is a need for lots of complicated advice, which means a farmer renting 30 or 40 acres will probably get blown out of the water as a livestock farmer.

We are asking dairy farmers to run harder in order to stand still. There was a time not so long ago 60 cows was a viable living. Now it is 120 cows but where does this all end? I am concerned about - and I had a friend in Australia during the winter - what social life looks like in rural Australia. Yes, farms are big and that is fine but is it really a life people want to live in Ireland where neighbours are a mile or two miles away? We have to try to get that balance right.

Part of that is saying we need to be careful that if, for example, we reduced to 170 kg N/ha the consequence is not to blow all of the medium and smaller scale cattle and sheep farmers out of the water. The consequence is not to say we only have a handful of tillage farmers who are on a very large scale. The consequence is that we are not down to farms of 300 or 400 cows only. Then there is the labour question and how we solve that. Then the young people who are farming those 300 or 400 cows notice they do not have neighbours anymore and that maybe it is not that good of a life after all. We have to get the balance between all of those things correct.

We mentioned the need for extra slurry storage earlier. That is a consequence of changing weather patterns to some considerable extent. We saw it this year with winter starting in September-October. Farmers spent a lot of money on slurry storage back as far as 2007 and 2008 and ever since but they are being asked to do more now. We now have a scenario where bank interest rates have gone up considerably in the past two years as a consequence of circumstances beyond our control. They are probably printing too much money. Farmers cannot really be advised to borrow money now - and some of them will not get the loans anyway - to expand their slurry storage when the banks know they could be waiting for two years to get a TAMS grant and when they know it is capped and not accurate in terms of the costings because the cost of construction is unpredictable and going up.

We have to try to get those things right and that is why the ICSA is saying we have to have a higher grant rate, particularly for cattle and sheep farmers who cannot afford to pay for extra slurry storage. Ultimately when we look at what our farmers do that could be improved on, there is a lot of talk about people spreading slurry during the closed season but that is primarily a consequence of unpredictable weather. We all know a few people who are not perfect but for a with lot of farmers, it is down to factors beyond their control. If they had more slurry storage, they would be okay but it is costing them too much to do it. They are young people and their kids are not clear about where they are going in farming and probably saying, maybe not, and we have to get all that right.