Seanad debates

Tuesday, 16 April 2024

1:00 pm

Photo of Paul DalyPaul Daly (Fianna Fail) | Oireachtas source

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Leas-Chathaoirleach. I welcome the Minister. The topic of today's debate is statements on agriculture which is a very broad church. It is such a vast sector with so many integral sectors within it. The Minister's speech has highlighted that the key topic at the moment is the weather and the issues pertaining to the prolonged spell of wet weather we have had since almost the start of July last year. I compliment the Minister. It is unusual in this Chamber – it is nearly a first for me – for a Minister to stand up and speak for eight minutes ad lib, not from notes, and speak so comprehensively and factually on the matters at hand. It certainly portrays the fact he is on his brief that he is able to come the House and address the issues so comprehensively ad lib, without referring to notes.

Going back to the start, this debate will most likely be dominated by the current crisis, which is the weather, climate and the spell of rain we have had ongoing since 1 July last year. I welcome the tillage support scheme of €100 per hectare. It was important the Minister clarified today that the €100 per hectare is applicable to crops harvested in 2024 because I had been getting questions from people who got some of their winter crop planted and the very few who have some spring seed in the ground on whether they were going to miss out on it. I welcome that clarification.

The Minister gave an exemption to the crop diversification element of GAEC 7, which was also important. I ask him to keep his finger on the pulse from the tillage sector point of view. We will talk about the extended housing of animals from the livestock sector and whether those animals would have been in sheds all winter anyway. The weather is only beginning to affect them now and they are having to push out their house period. The tillage people were caught at the harvest end last year. They lost out and missed out on a lot of sowing of their winter crops and they still have not got up and running on their spring crops. Of all sectors, it is the one that has been affected since the weather broke. With the greatest respect to the dairy and livestock sides, it is only now they are going out to grass. They would have been wintering their animals anyway. Unfortunately, the tillage people got hammered at the tail end of last season and the beginning of this season. I would like the Minister to keep his finger on the pulse on that. While the €100 per hectare is welcome in the long run, it may not be enough and he may have to revisit it. They genuinely have been very badly hit.

I welcome the fact the Minister paused all non-essential inspections. However, in that regard I request that he might contact his colleague, the Minister, Deputy O’Brien, and correlate with respect to county council inspections. Some councils have rowed in behind the Minister’s decision and have suspended all unnecessary inspections while others are carrying on. It is causing a small bit of confusion as to whether councils will or will not do so. As the intention of the pausing is for mental health reasons for the farmers, who are under enough pressure without having an inspection, it just does not make sense that the Department is standing back for that reason but the same farmers can still have inspections from local authority inspectors. If it could be correlated between the two Departments that the councils would take the same attitude as the Department, that would be appreciated.

I will move on to fodder. I welcome the fodder transport scheme. A number of people have been on to me. Straw is very scarce now. Straw is being imported from the UK as we speak. We have, for all the right reasons, and I welcomed it at the time, the straw incorporation scheme, but I have people on to me about the irony of us incorporating or chopping up our own straw in the harvest time and now importing straw from the UK. The comparison has been made with when we stopped harvesting peat for environmental reasons but found ourselves, on the other hand, importing it from eastern Europe. With regard to the climate and environment, which is the lesser of two evils? Perhaps depending on how the season evolves, the Minister might look at that straw incorporation if there is still a shortage of straw going into next winter, which there most likely will be because most reserves have been used up. I was asked to raise that with the Minister.

I ask the Minister to monitor the situation as closely as he can and keep his finger on the pulse. As he rightly said in his speech, we look out the window today and the sun is shining. However, a couple of fine days will not solve the problems.I witnessed similar situations previously in the course of what is now getting to be my long lifetime in agriculture. When water levels are so high and the soil and ground so wet, a very brief dry spell, especially in April when there are still harsh winds, can cause the soil to dry from the top down. The ground can become very dry on top in the space of a couple of weeks. It can look like the problem is solved and we are out the gap on this one, but it will only be dry and crusty on top, which will inhibit growth. It is possible there will be no growth because the water is still underneath. The fields will look dry after a dry, sunny harsh week or two but a tractor will sink in them. The ground will dry from the top down. That can be an even bigger problem. It could lead to a shortage of silage and grass, compound the issues going forward and leave us at square minus one before next winter even arrives. There is a need to keep an eye on that. I would not be singing and dancing just because we get a couple of fine days. We need the April showers. Beggars cannot be choosers and we will take the fine days but a prolonged period of even a week of dry, harsh weather can cause its own problems going forward.

I welcome the Minister's exemption to the 15% crude protein requirement. However, I query the terms and conditions which will make it necessary for a FAS adviser or a nutritionist to sign off on it. We are trying to eliminate bureaucracy. Will the Minister bring in an exemption across the board, to 1 May or whenever, rather than putting more bureaucracy, red tape and work on farmers by requiring them to go to a nutritionist or FAS adviser?

To move on to other areas, the derogation will always be top of the list, and probably would have been so today if it was not for the weather. I will not go into it in great detail. I have no doubt my colleague from west Cork will cover it in more detail. We had a good meeting with the CEO of Tirlán Farm Life at the weekend. Its River Slaney catchment area approach is a model in we could encourage more farming co-ops, related industries and people in the sector other than farmers themselves to get involved in the context of trying to improve water quality. We all have a vested interest in this, not just farmers. Tirlán is leading in this regard. What it has done on the River Slaney project is a model that should and could be used by more. At the end of the day, we as a nation, not just the farming community, will lose if we lose our derogation. The farming community will be the hardest hit but it will also hit the overall economy of this country in which agriculture is the largest indigenous industry. It is vitally important that we get a handle on water quality and can hold our derogation. Everybody who can play a part in that needs to be encouraged along. I compliment Tirlán and hope that more people can row in with similar projects.

I had a conversation with the Minister previously about the reference costs in targeted agriculture modernisation schemes, TAMS. We see the need now more than ever for additional slurry storage, with the extended housing period. I genuinely believe the gap between the Department's reference costs and the actual building costs is such that it is inhibiting some people from developing and carrying on projects, even those that have been approved for the grant. I discussed this previously with the Minister. I again plead with him to expedite the review of the estimated Department costs and to try to bridge the gap between those costs and the actual costs.

My final point, which I raised with the Minister previously, relates to the area of live exports, new EU proposals and the proposed changes involving the reduction of journey times and the increase of space allowances. We are an island nation. We are talking about a fodder crisis. If all the mouths that have been exported were on the island, we would have a very serious fodder crisis at the moment. We would not be able to handle our dairy calf sector. The market for store cattle has almost collapsed because there is no grass. If we were not exporting weanlings, where would that market be? It is the same with finished cattle. We need to get special treatment on this. Being cognisant of the ongoing importance of animal welfare, I do not want any of the conditions under which animals travel to be reduced.While I am cognisant of the animal welfare issues, the fact that ours is an island nation must be taken into consideration. We need to be able to access to the Common Market like every other country. If the changes that are being proposed are introduced, they will result in a worse hit for our agriculture sector than a loss of the derogation.


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