Seanad debates

Tuesday, 16 April 2024

1:00 pm

Photo of Charlie McConalogueCharlie McConalogue (Donegal, Fianna Fail) | Oireachtas source

I thank the Acting Chairperson and Seanadóirí for scheduling these statements today. It is important that we discuss this as it is an acute issue and it has been a very difficult time for farmers in all sectors and all parts of the country.As we know, it has been an exceptionally long winter. Going back as far as the ploughing championships last year in early September, the rain was soaking the ground and there has not really been any relief since that. Indeed, it was challenging before that. It led to a very early start to the winter with animals in many cases going into the houses and starting to eat fodder from September onwards. Of course, we are now in mid-April and those animals are still being housed, working off fodder and all the stress that goes along with that.

It was an especially challenging autumn last year but it has also been an unprecedentedly challenging spring for our tillage sector. Very few crops have been planted yet and we are now at 16 April. That has not happened certainly in my recent memory. It poses a very significant challenge for the tillage sector. It is stressful and very difficult at farm level. It can really get in on people because farming, certainly nowadays, can be solitary. If a farmer is waiting to get out to plough fields and the rain keeps pouring down, that can be a quite difficult and stressful situation for a farmer. If a farmer's animals are still inside, with all the pressures that goes with that in terms of fodder, slurry, minding the animals and going out in the morning and an animal is sick and such, that is very stressful and difficult. First and foremost, the onus is on farmers, and all of us, to work and support one another at this time and to look out and share their challenges and issues. I would say to people it is important to reach out and provide support to those around you as well.

It is also particularly important that we, as Government, do all we can, as much as we can, to support the sector through times such as this, too. As Minister, I have been very cognisant of that and I have been working with my Government colleagues in terms of monitoring what has been happening in the country and responding to the challenges as they have evolved.

Recently, I have been working closely with the national fodder and feed security committee under the chairmanship of Mike Magan, with all of the farm leadership and representatives on it, and with Teagasc, led by Frank O'Mara, to assess the situation as we have gone through the winter into the spring, especially in recent weeks because the winter and housed period has become very long indeed. I acknowledge the work they have done and the leadership they have shown, particularly the leadership Mike Magan has shown as chairperson. The committee has been meeting regularly and, up to its most recent meeting, which was this day last week, its assessment is that there is, thankfully, sufficient fodder stocks in the country. Some farms are running out of fodder, however, or do not have it and are under pressure. Some parts of the country are under more pressure and have a bigger shortage than others, but thankfully, there is enough fodder in the country despite the fact we have had an unprecedentedly long winter period and such.

I have stepped in take to take a few measures to support farmers through this. First, I stopped all inspections, except those absolutely essential for completing payments to farmers, until 22 April. I tasked Teagasc with providing the support at local level to farmers in linking those who still have a supply with those who are experiencing a shortage. I have asked the agency to put together a fodder register and to put helplines in place. Thankfully, so far, in the most recent update as of a couple of days ago regarding the number of calls coming into Teagasc, there have been twice as many offers of silage, extra hay and fodder than there has been requests for them. There are twice as many calls coming in with offers as there are requests for help. It is reassuring the fodder is there so far. Obviously, it depends how long it goes on. We are here today and the sun is shining outside, which is the first time we have seen a bit of sun in a long time. It is hoped the forecast will be better for the week ahead. We hope the weather will change and will pick up on the positive side because growth has been good. Unlike previous challenges where there have been fodder shortages, there is grass in most fields.There is, therefore, a better supply of grass than there would have been, for example, in 2018 or 2013 when there was not a blade of grass on the ground until the middle of May because it was so cold and farmers had to wait for it to grow. At least on this occasion, if the ground does dry out - and that is not in our gift - there will be more of a supply for stock once the fields are traffickable. In the meantime, it is our job to support farmers through this.

As Minister, I have always had a fear that we would be in a situation where we would not have enough fodder, particularly in light of the illegal Russian invasion of Ukraine and the supply challenges this has created. The impact on fertiliser costs was something I was very conscious of. I did not want farmers to cut it short or take a chance on not buying fertiliser or not growing enough fodder and then being caught short by a long winter. That is why I ran the fodder scheme last year, which provided €56 million for farmers to grow up to 25 acres of fodder - silage or hay - on each farm. That paid up to €1,000 to each family farm across the country to support them in making sure that fodder stocks were kept as strong as possible. There was a really strong response from farmers to that. Some 67,000 farmers across the country applied for the scheme. Thankfully, this has meant that despite the fact we have had an exceptionally long winter, we have enough fodder in the country. It is now a matter of making sure those who do not have it can get it from those who still have a supply. I am confident that we will be able to see this period out with enough fodder in the country.

The tillage sector is facing particular challenges. I am very conscious of this. I am also conscious that every day that passes without farmers being able to sow crops adds risk in relation to the growing and harvest seasons. It will bring us into a later harvest. It will also bring increased risk in relation to an impact on yields. I know confidence is low and stress levels are high in relation to tillage farms at the moment.

That is why, at the Fianna Fáil Ard-Fheis at the weekend, I gave the clear commitment to the tillage sector that I would deliver over the course of this year. I am making the commitment that I will deliver €100 per hectare to all farmers who put seed in the soil for the 2024 harvest season. This means that farmers who planted winter crops last year - a challenging planting season - and those who put seed in the soil this spring for cereals or field vegetables, will receive €100 per hectare. I will work assessing the existing budget I have and I will also look to find ways to deliver that finance over the coming months. This €100 per hectare will give tillage farmers the confidence at this point to go ahead and plant and make sure that we harvest. This is a massively important sector and I want to make sure that we keep as much ground in the sector as possible. I also want to makes sure that we work with the sector to grow it towards the 400,000 ha target we have set for it. This is very achievable if we can support the sector through this difficult time.

In the last couple of days I have received the report from farmers and representatives who I brought together into the Food Vision tillage group to advise me on how we can seek to grow the sector. I will be reflecting on this report and the various considerations in relation to it. In the immediate short term, it is really important that we support farmers to have more confidence to go ahead and plant so that €100 per hectare is going to be an important support and commitment from the Government.

I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach for the opportunity for all of us to come together today to assess where we are at. I now look forward to the Senators' contributions and to responding to any issues raised.


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