Seanad debates

Tuesday, 16 April 2024

1:00 pm

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

I thank the Cathaoirleach and all our contributors. It was a very comprehensive debate that covered all parts of the country and dealt with the many sectors under significant pressure at present. I thank Senators Paul Daly, Mullen, Lombard, Hoey, Joe O'Reilly, Malcolm Byrne, McGreehan, Maria Byrne, Dooley, Kyne and Cummins for taking the time to give their insights into the challenges we face at the moment, the measures we are taking, and what they feel may be needed as we go through the course of the year. Many issues were raised in the various contributions. I will not have time to address all of them but I will certainly try to address a number of them.

I echo the sympathies expressed regarding the sad and untimely passing of Paddy Dunican from Kilbeggan. I met him on a number of occasions. He was somebody who was greatly committed to the sector. I pass on my sympathies to all of his family.

I will touch on a number of the issues raised by Senators. The key sense that came forward is the importance of all of us, from a Government point of view, working to support people through the time ahead. We have been working collectively to do that in our response over recent weeks. I acknowledge the role that people right across the farming sector have carried out in supporting their friends, neighbours and the farming community. Farmer to farmer support is massively important. Any of us who grew up on a farm know the importance of good neighbours. They are the ones you draw on most of all. They are the ones who are the first to be there and know, without even being asked a lot of the time, what the pressure you are under might be. They see how you got through the previous year. They know instinctively where you are at with your farm. They also know the other pressures that might be on a farmer and a family.

The farming community is always quite good in responding and checking in. That is very important at a time like this, especially in the context of the challenges we have gone through in respect of fodder. That is why we may put schemes in place. It is important I do that as Minister and that the Government steps in to provide support, but the primary way farmers get and find that support is among one another in the neighbourhood and community. That is where the vast majority of that transfer and support comes from. Thankfully, this year, in the vast majority of the country, there have been sufficient fodder stocks for farmers to be able to help one another locally.

As the fodder shortage has progressed over recent weeks, and we all hope we will come out the other side in the time ahead and things will improve, we have put supports in place, particularly through the transport scheme, to help farmers through the co-op network. We recognise the role of the co-ops and the fact they have also stepped up to the mark to provide support through their network by covering a significant part of the transport if fodder needs to be brought into an area, so no farmer has any further to go than his or her co-op yard to get fodder if he or she is short. Obviously, it will be the case that farmers will work to source fodder locally, very often from neighbouring farms. I recognise that support and re-emphasise the importance of everyone continuing to support one another.

If the weather continues to go in the direction the forecasts indicate it may do in the days ahead, it will become a very busy time on farms throughout the country. It will become a very pressured time. It will be a different type of pressure from the frustration there has been over recent weeks of waiting and wondering what will happen. It will become the pressure and stress of trying to catch up, of trying to get crops in the ground and all that goes with that. It will also be about trying to catch up on fertilising, silage and all the work that has been on hold. That is a different type of pressure. Farmers want to get on with that. There will be a sense of relief in one sense, but there will also be a lot of hard work and long days. It is very important everybody minds themselves in that scenario.

It is also important we re-emphasise the message of the importance of farm safety, people minding themselves as they go along, and keeping one another right in the scenario of an increased chance and risk of accidents. As we know, farming is the most dangerous profession in the country. Any of us who have grown up on a farm know we are only ever one wrong step, turn or decision away from being in danger. Everybody needs to be cognisant of that over the next few weeks.

As for the rest of the year, we do not know what the summer, the autumn and the harvest will bring but it will be important. We monitor that. It is to be hoped the weather gods will re-tilt the balance but we do not know. They certainly have not done so for most of the past year. This time last year, we were moving into drought conditions, but by mid or late June the weather broke and it has remained very challenging since then. As has been the case collectively at Government level, we will continue to monitor and engage very closely. In the short term, I will continue to work very closely with the fodder committee, under the chairmanship of Mike Magan, and all stakeholders. In the steps we take, we will be as supportive as we possibly can in a way that will be of help to farmers at farm level over the weeks and months ahead.

Among the issues raised was that of straw and the straw incorporation scheme. It is a new scheme that has been put in place, which is an important income support for tillage farmers. There is a real challenge regarding straw supply. That is something tillage farmers will be looking at, as will all farmers. In terms of how we structure any straw incorporation measure this year, it is important we make sure it leads to an increased supply and replenishing of the supply of straw stocks. I put extra money into the straw incorporation scheme because the reality was, at the end of last year, that much of the straw incorporated into the ground last year was straw that could not be saved and would not have been saved otherwise. We allowed flexibility at the back end, which had not happened previously, for fields to be swapped. If there were fields that were not part of the scheme and farmers had another field in which straw that had been harvested was lying for three or four weeks, we allowed them to include that field in the scheme so they could incorporate the straw, as they just could not save it. In what was a very difficult year financially, that was an important support for the sector. However, I absolutely accept we collectively have to put a big emphasis on making sure we get straw stocks back in. Of all the roughage materials and resources, be they silage or hay, the one that is most scarce at the moment is straw. We want to see that changed and addressed.

On farm payments, I have asked the team in the Department to continue in every way possible to issue any remaining payments as quickly as we can.They have been significant, and well in excess of 90% has been paid across the different schemes. One scheme that had been really challenging was ACRES. I intervened there a month or six weeks ago to direct that we would issue an interim payment to every farmer who had not yet received an ACRES payment of either €4,000, for those in the general scheme, or €5,000, for those in the co-operation scheme. This was to make sure that every farmer who had not received a payment would receive an interim payment. Almost half of farmers, namely 18,000, had not received payments at that time. They have all received payments now, however, other than in circumstances where there is a conveyancing issue relating to a farm. It is only in those cases that payment would not have issued. Otherwise, it is every farmer in ACRES. For any other farmer who, for whatever reason, has not yet received a payment, the Department will do its very best to get it out and get it delivered as well.

Many other issues were discussed, including the derogation, which is massively important. It is a key priority for us to retain that and to work together to ensure that every necessary step is taken to make sure we do not see it diluted in any way. What we have we hold. This is really important.

There is also the issue of slurry storage at farm level, which was raised by number of Senators. It is important that we work with farmers to support them to make sure there is sufficient slurry storage. The one message coming from all of this is the importance of continuing to ensure that we are prepared for the exceptional. The exceptional is becoming more regular and more normal. Right across the sector, we need to make sure that any farm is prepared for the potential seven-month winter. Stock in all parts of the country were being fed from last September. Seven months later, in mid-April, that remains the case in all parts the country. When there was a potential drought situation early last year, animals were being fed during the summer in some instances. It is very important that we do become robust and resilient. That is key. Thankfully this time, although we had a seven month winter, we all worked collectively. The fodder scheme that was operated last year was important in this regard. We had enough fodder in the country to get us through a seven-month winter. There were, however, some areas where it was in shorter supply. We have to make sure we are prepared for that in any scenario. Ideally, we would have four- or five-month rather than seven-month winters, but everybody has to be prepared. The Government will work to support the sector in the time ahead too.

I thank all the Seanadóirí for engaging in this debate and for all of the feedback offered. I certainly take it all on board.


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