Seanad debates

Tuesday, 16 April 2024

1:00 pm

Photo of Tim LombardTim Lombard (Fine Gael) | Oireachtas source

I thank the Minister for attending this welcome debate on agriculture. I can blame him for many things but I cannot blame him for the weather. The past seven months have been frightening. It has been appalling. Since last September, it has not stopped raining. In my part of the world, an inch and a half of rain fell last Monday week. To say it was depressing is an understatement. Where we are as an industry and a community is frightening at present.

We are looking at a scenario where no tillage work has been done and it will probably be the end of the week before they will start. Cows that would usually be out day and night by St. Patrick's Day are still in by night, and sometimes, depending on the day, they are in by day. Fodder is there but some people are transporting it. Slurry is the ultimate problem. There is no place to go with slurry because the ground is saturated. It is the perfect storm in such a frightening way.

I acknowledge the tillage scheme that was announced at the weekend. It is an important step. The tillage industry is so important for the country. It is a step in the right direction. Some of the tillage farmers I talk to failed to harvest their grain last September, however. They failed to get the grain off. How we will make sure they have the confidence to go back into that scenario will be a big issue. I am not sure what the solution to building their confidence is. The €100 an acre is a help but trying to get the farming community to go out and plant again will be a major issue.

The straw issue that was mentioned by my colleague is important. How we could even contemplate chopping straw this year is something we need to start talking about now. We are all aware of the economic and environmental impact of chopping straw but we need that straw at this stage. We need it for fodder and bedding. We need to make sure the majority of that straw is kept because farmers will be planting grain - they call it "cuckoo grain" - in the month of May and they will not have straw off it anyway. The amount of straw that will come off it will be limited and we need to make sure straw is kept.

From the dairy point of view - this is like an IFA meeting now - we are looking at an unbelievable scenario. Milk production was down 10% in February and 16%, in my part of the world, in March. I reckon it will be will down another 15% or 16% in April. We will miss peak. Peak comes at the end of April. Cows will not peak. Taking 15% off a milk pool of more than 10 billion litres, approximately, the reduction could be heading towards 1.5 billion litres. If it was 1.5 billion litres at 40 cent a litre, the net reduction in spend in the community would be €600 million. That is a mini-budget scenario. That does not factor in the cost of trying to keep these animals going for the past few months, with them having to be fed 6 kg or 7 kg of ration, as well as all the real costs of veterinary bills and everything else. The cost of this winter to the farming community from the dairy point of view is potentially heading towards €1 billion, which is beyond belief. I would never have thought we would see that day but that is where we are because of the significant issues we have on the farm.

We probably need to do a little more with regard to making sure farmers' mental health is protected. Farmers' mental health is under exceptional pressure. I feel it myself at home with the rain and everything. I am lucky I spend three days a week in the Seanad. I will not lie to the Minister. I will be very honest about it. There are farmers in my part of the world who have not left the farm since last September. It is the drudgery of going through the entirety of it day in, day out - how they can manage slurry, fodder, their family and their mental health, as well as the financial issues pertaining to it, such as the big bills in the co-op and the milk cheques that are not what they were previously.We need to look at things like the existing derogation deadlines. The deadline for putting in information is 17 April. Those deadlines should be extended again. The deadline for the single farm payment also needs to be extended. We need to give farmers a break with regard to paperwork because the weather is after turning and they need to get out and work. They do not need to be going into Teagasc offices to do paperwork. It just would not work. We need to free up Teagasc employees to make sure they can make phone calls to the farming community. If Teagasc employees are doing the paperwork for derogations or the single farm payment, they might get through eight or nine clients a day. If they hit the phones, they could do 30 or 35 a day.

We need to free farmers up to talk about the issues at hand. The discussion groups need to meet off-farm, perhaps in a coffee shop, the local Centra or wherever. They need to talk about something other than farming because they are driven demented by what is happening on the ground. As I have often said, I have no problem with the two thirds who talk to me. It is the third who say nothing to me that I am genuinely concerned about because these lads are under exceptional pressure. We need to look at how to engage with these lads and with the lassies. They are all under the same pressure. I have never seen pressure like it. It has been seven months. I am 47 and have been farming for the past 29 years. This is the worst I have ever seen. We often talk about the weather. It is what we talk about. However, we have never dealt with anything like this previously. How we engage with the farming community to ensure their mental health is protected is the ultimate issue. It is to be hoped that financial issues and so on can be sorted in time but these lads are under mental strain. They are physically and mentally exhausted. Families are worn out because of the weather we have dealt with in the last seven months.

Along with our tillage sector, our vegetable sector is under significant stress. I will tell a true story. I met a lady coming out of the shopping centre in Bandon last week. She had a trolley full of potatoes. I asked her what she was doing and she told me that there will not be a potato in the country so she was going home to freeze them. This was a lady with a full trolley of potatoes because she actually thinks there will not be a potato next September. She might be right. The general public see that we are going to have a very significant issue because we cannot get anything into the soil because of the weather conditions. That is a significant issue for that sector.

In all my years, I have not seen the farming community under stress like this. We need to take action on the dates for these schemes. We need to push them out to give farmers a break. A few weeks would mean an awful lot. The days are getting longer and work can be done, but they need the few weeks that would be provided by pushing out the schemes if at all possible. It is a very proactive step. Mental health needs to be spoken about in every debate. Every time we talk about farmers, it is the first thing we talk about. We need to make sure they are going to be okay. To be honest, to deal with the financial implications of the past seven months, I believe we will need a mini-budget. We are talking about a potential net cost of €1 billion to our community. That is something we have never seen before. It is unprecedented in a great many ways.

The focus for the next few months has to be on ways to protect and save our family farms. The figures and the loss of income are frightening. The stock of fodder is not going to be there and next winter is literally six months away. We need to plan for next winter now. Fertiliser needs to go out and silage needs to come in. In my part of the world, we will be at silage in three weeks' time. There will not be a blade of grass cut because there is nothing there. You could not get out in it anyway. Next winter is the ultimate issue for a great many farms now. We need to plan for the cycle because of the way we are. That will take support and will require confidence to be built. If we can do that, we can build our industry. This year is a financial write-off. We need to see how farmers are going to be supported.

The other issue is that the co-operative movement is going to be down more than 1 billion litres of milk. How are we going to manage the movement in that scenario? The cost of production is going to be a significant issue because the volume of milk will not be there.A forum needs to be put together between the co-operative societies, the Department and the farmers to see where the dairy industry is going to go for next 18 months, to see what supports are in place, and to see what they can do to make sure not only the dairy farmer is protected but also the co-operative movement can be protected too. With that loss of production, the actual maths regarding our 59 milk plants becomes a real credible issue. It was not that long ago we were talking about the lack of stainless steel, but it has gone the other way now. We do not need stainless steel because of the potential volume loss in milk this year. The figures are clear. It was a 10% loss in February and a 15% loss in March. If my cows do not peak by the end of April then it is downward all the way. This is a double digit drop in milk, which is €1 billion-plus, which goes into half a billion straight away, and that is quite significant. I thank the Minister.


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