Seanad debates

Tuesday, 16 April 2024

1:00 pm

Photo of Malcolm ByrneMalcolm Byrne (Fianna Fail) | Oireachtas source

I thank the Minister for his work in this space because it has certainly been a very difficult year, as he has acknowledged, for a lot of farmers and food producers. I welcome the measures he has taken, including for instance around the interim ACRES payments and recognising that getting money into farmers’ pockets is critical. The Minister will be aware that it has been an especially difficult year for tillage farmers. I know a significant number of them in County Wexford who have been badly impacted because the weather has been so bad. This has arguably been the worst winter into spring for tillage farmers in modern memory. While the €100 per hectare financial support the Minister has announced is welcome, whether it will be sufficient to support the most vulnerable in particular is to be questioned. I ask him to keep a constant eye on that to try to ensure we continue to make tillage farms sustainable. Related to that, because of the impact on growing, is the concern we may end up with a deficit of straw later in the year. I hope the Minister can offer us some clarity with regard to the straw chopping scheme and how that may proceed this autumn, especially as there may be some limits put in place.

I need to specifically raise a concern around hedgecutting because of the problem with the weather. The Minister will be very aware of this and my friend and colleague, Senator Paul Daly, has raised it with him as well. There are very legitimate reasons we limit it to particular times during the course of the year, but the problem is when the calendar is not following the normal seasons we expect it causes difficulty. Obviously this is a problem for quite a lot of hedgecutters and contractors. I hope the Minister might, on his next visit to Wexford, engage with some of them. James Graham in County Wexford has been especially strong on this issue, but I am aware the Minister is quite familiar with some of the concerns. I appreciate it requires legislative change, but with all these climate events that are happening we are going to have to look at calendar farming, so to speak. If we are going to see all the challenges around climate change and the impact that has had we may need to look at specific dates and allow for some level of flexibility.

I very much welcome that within his speech the Minister referred to the impact on the mental health of farmers. He will be aware that when people are under financial pressure it can also have an impact on their mental health. Apart from anything else, the bad weather we have had over the last number of months would not put anybody in a good mood and it is important that the Minister continues to acknowledge that. He will be aware of farmers such as Patrick Hipwell and George Graham in Wexford.They have worked with the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, on promoting rural mental health. It is critical to the discussions we have that we do not just sustain family farms but also recognise the well-being of farmers and their families. Given the difficult winter they have come through, this should remain a priority.

I have raised regularly with the Minister the question of succession. He has met with Wexford Macra na Feirme and has been keen to involve young people in farming. One of the biggest challenges for agriculture remains the age profile of those involved in it. We continue to have well over 50% of farmers over the age of 60 and, according to recent estimates, only 7% under the age of 35. If that was in any other career or profession, we would be taking about a serious crisis. I believe it is a serious crisis in farming.

We need to convene a forum on the future of farming in rural Ireland, looking at where we will be in five to ten years' time, taking account of climate change and weather events but also asking how we can sustain rural Ireland and the small family farm. We need to engage young farmers in that process. The Minister has been visionary in much of the work he is doing but we cannot constantly look at sticking-plaster solutions. We have to look at the long-term future of the area.

I thank the Minister for being with us in the House today and hope he takes those concerns on board.


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