Wednesday, 18 April 2018
Fodder Shortage: Motion
That Seanad Éireann:notes:
- the major role agriculture plays in creating employment, generating economic activity and acting as a custodian of the countryside in Ireland;
- the unique vulnerability and exposure of agriculture to fluctuations in the weather;
- the on-going hardship inflicted upon farming communities across Ireland due to the fodder crisis that has been evident in the country since last Autumn and the sacrifices farming families have made to protect their livestock;
- the failure of the Government to address the fodder shortages meant there were no contingency plans in place despite Teagasc advising of the need to prioritise the feeding of meal/cereal based concentrates to plug the fodder gap;
- the contradictory situation with the Government reaffirming on 4th April, 2018, that there was an availability of fodder in the country while Co-operatives were ordering fodder imports from the UK on the very same day;
- that due to inaction, the fodder crisis has become a national emergency putting a huge strain on farmers' mental health and creating animal welfare issues;
- that some farmers are spending €2,500 weekly due to the fodder crisis according to IFAC, while Teagasc estimates reduced profitability for every day that cows are not grazing at between €2.20 and €3 per cow;
- that the fodder transport scheme has failed to address the crisis as signified by the low uptake and excessive regulatory criteria put on farmers to access the scheme, which had the impact of driving up the demand and price for already scarce domestically sourced fodder;
- the belated move by the Government to open the Fodder Import Support Scheme to all Co-operatives and private feed merchants; and
- that the Government chose not to include a measure in Ireland's Rural Development Programme (RDP), 2014-2020, which would compensate farmers for losses caused by adverse weather as is currently permitted;
and calls on the Government to:
- immediately bring forward a hardship fund to help small and medium size farmers who have been severely impacted by the fodder crisis;
- introduce a meal voucher scheme for farmers affected;
- swiftly make available low cost credit for farmers to help pay for the costs of sourcing fodder and concentrates, while immediately finalising and opening the low cost loan scheme announced over seven months ago in Budget 2018;
- ensure all balancing payments for outstanding 2017 RDP scheme payments such as the Green, Low-Carbon, Agri-Environment Scheme (GLAS) and the Sheep Welfare Scheme are paid immediately as farmers' cash flow problems mount;
- dedicate a budget to the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine Early Warning System (EWS), which supports farmers at local level before any welfare problems occur;
- establish a special standing committee comprised of relevant stakeholders to monitor and report quarterly to the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, to keep fodder supplies under review with fail safe measures to ensure that such a crisis does not emerge again;
- temporarily halt all cross compliance inspections on farms as well as Bord Bia farm audits;
- include a permanent scheme in the RDP to compensate farmers for losses caused by adverse weather; and
- ensure that flexibility is shown regarding the upcoming 2018 Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) deadline.
Since last September, Fianna Fáil has called for action to tackle the issue of fodder shortages. In the end, what began as a fodder shortage has become a fodder crisis because of the Government's failure to act. This has caused huge stress to farmers and created animal welfare issues.
In December 2017, I raised this matter in the Seanad and said that taking a wait-and-see approach simply would not work. However, that is exactly what the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Creed, did. Now we see the consequences. Last week at the Oireachtas agriculture committee, the Minister said that even if the Department had sanctioned fodder importation at an earlier date, it would not have happened. He said everyone had expected the weather to improve which would have resolved the issue. While we all hoped for better weather, we know from experience that one needs to prepare for the worst, even while hoping for the best. Instead, the Minister put his faith in blind optimism and was left scrambling around at the last minute for a solution to the crisis. Assumption is no foundation for policy.
In January in the House, the Minister referred to the introduction of the transport subsidy which has since proven to be a total failure. The fact there were only 16 applicants says it all. The Minister also said there was enough fodder on the island but that it was just in the wrong places. By encouraging movement from one area to another and not acknowledging the need for fodder importation at that stage, the problem was compounded in areas where fodder was moved from and which are now in crisis. On that occasion, I emphasised the severity of the crisis and called for urgent action. The Minister's response was that I was only looking for a headline. That could not be further from the truth. I was outlining my genuine concerns which, unfortunately, have now been shown to be well-founded. In the end, it is the Minister who has received the headlines on this issue, headlines, no doubt, he would have preferred to avoid.
This crisis has shown just how out of touch Fine Gael is with rural areas. Its amendment to this motion shows it is still a party in denial and unable to understand the reality for farmers as this crisis has spiralled and spread. The Minister has belatedly introduced an import scheme. This is insufficient, however, on its own and Fianna Fáil is calling for additional urgent measures to be put in place.In particular, the Government needs to introduce, with immediate effect, a meal voucher scheme for affected farmers. This should have been introduced some time ago. People are now of the opinion that, because the weather has taken a slight turn for the better, this is not a necessity. The Minister of State and I know that the stock turned out onto grass, whenever that option becomes available in particular areas, will be in a very poor state, with many animals suffering from malnutrition. The cows in the suckler herd will have serious fertility problems. We have factual evidence, depending on which of the co-ops is providing the figures, that dairy milk production is down by up to 10%. Without any research or similar figures, we can take it that the milk production rate relating to suckler cows has decreased in the same way and that calves are suffering in that instance. Meal vouchers will be needed, with grass, to supplement the animals coming out in poor condition to try to get them back to the respectable condition in which the farmers of this country strive to have them. Grass alone will not do this.
Despite what some people might say as a result of the sun shining today, it is not too late to introduce these much-needed meal vouchers. They will also be needed to supplement grass because farmers have had to put cattle out early due to a lack of feed. They are grazing them on what would normally be silage ground. Silage cutting and production is now way behind. In a year in which we will need extra silage to replace the vast silage stores and back-ups that people had in reserve and which they have been using, we need to be able to preserve this silage ground and feed cattle on fewer acres. A supplement will be needed to accommodate this. It is not too late and it is vital that a meal voucher system be introduced forthwith.
Low-cost credit must be made available to farmers. A low-cost credit loan scheme was announced in the budget. This scheme should be finalised as a priority and made available to farmers in need. Practically all farmers who have stock have a serious cashflow deficiency because they had to buy feed for which they did not plan or budget. They are faced with a situation whereby they will need extra fertiliser to catch up on growth in circumstances where land has taken a hammering from the bad weather we have experienced during the past seven months. If they can manage it, they will also have to set aside extra ground for silage. If we get a bad harvest or autumn, there may not be an opportunity to have the second or third cut required to build up these reserves. In order to maximise output, there needs to be, more than in any previous year, a correctly managed application of fertiliser. Unfortunately, in many instances the merchants from whom the farmers buy their fertiliser are at their limit in the context of extending credit as a result of the fact that they had to provide additional meal and food during the winter months. I know of smaller merchants who have said openly that they will not stock or sell fertiliser this year for fear that they will not be paid for it. Low-cost credit is one solution to this problem. It will help farmers invest, get themselves back on their feet and get their land and animals back into the condition they would have been in had this crisis not arisen.
The Minister should immediately bring forward a hardship fund to help the small and medium-sized farmers who have suffered most. While low-cost loans and cheap credit are advantageous and helpful, loans have one major problem in that they must be paid back. Every sector in the agriculture is struggling. However, the suckler sector in particular is struggling as a result of what happened in the past seven months. It is difficult to see how people will be able to pay back loans for fodder that has now been eaten. While fertiliser assists the growth of grass, some farmers will hope for the best. They will be of the view that we will, perhaps, have a good year and that they will get grass without using fertiliser. This is because they cannot afford to buy it. A hardship fund is also a necessity in such circumstances.
It goes without saying that outstanding GLAS and sheep welfare scheme payments should be paid immediately. Farmers are in dire straits regarding credit from their merchants and suppliers. To be owed money by the Department that should be overseeing this crisis is farcical. Every move should be made in order that this money can be paid immediately. It is the farmers' money and for it to be sitting in the Department's bank account when they are in such dire straits is inexcusable.
Flexibility must be shown in respect of the upcoming 2018 basic payment scheme and beef data and genomics programme deadlines. A major issue I see coming down the line, which has been highlighted to me in the context of the beef data and genomics programme, is the four-star and five-star 20% target for October 2018. In October, consideration must be given to farmers who cannot meet this deadline where it can be proven this is due to actions they have taken in recent months to try to get through the crisis, such as selling heifers to bring in money to buy feed or because they did not have feed for those animals. There has to be some relief from the penalties in these situations.
Fianna Fáil is calling for a temporary halt to all cross-compliance inspections, as well as to Bord Bia farm audits, until the immediate problems are solved. This is common sense. We all know the major stress that farmers are under. They are trying their damnedest to get things back in order. They are working on a 24-7 basis in many cases. The last thing they need is the possibility of inspection. In solidarity with their plight, it would be advisable that inspections be suspended.
The Minister should also establish a standing committee to keep fodder supplies under review. If this matter is not managed properly from now on, seeing as it has not been to date, it is a fact there will be another fodder crisis in 2019. I do not like stating this because I do not want to come across as an eternal pessimist adding more bad news to a bad news story. While it is being called a fodder crisis, it is an agricultural crisis. No spring crops have been sown and practically no ploughing has been done. This means that farmers are a month to six weeks behind. Anyone who knows anything about tillage will say that if barley is not sown until the next three weeks, the best case will be stunted straw growth, although the grain might come out okay. By its nature, barley will still ripen in August when it normally does but there will not be an extra month's growth at the end of the season. This indicates to me that next winter will commence with a shortage of straw.
As already stated, if there is not correct management of pasture rotation and fertiliser spreading, we will not build up the reserves of silage we need. All of this depends on the imponderable that got us to where we are, namely, that we get a summer during which we can make silage and that we get a normal autumn. There needs to be a standing committee to keep fodder supplies under review and to advise and help farmers to get the maximum from their financial and land resources, mineral additives and anything that can help to get them over this hump and out the far side with enough reserves for, potentially, an equally long winter next year.
The Government should include a permanent scheme in the rural development programme to compensate farmers for losses caused by severe weather. The Government could have included this in the rural development plan for the period 2014 to 2020 but it refused to do so. There is no EU regulation or directive and no diktat from Brussels to state that we could not have done this. We could have done so and the Government ignored it. If that were in situ, we would not be here today raising many of these issues. The time has come to put in place the necessary structures to resolve this crisis and prevent similar problems from arising in future. Any further inaction on the part of the Minister will only damage Irish agriculture further.As I said at the outset, I along with others have been raising this issue here since autumn and early winter last year. It is time now for action. For many people and many animals, it is too late. We learned nothing in 2013. Any time we raised it, we were told there was a fodder action group being headed by Teagasc. Perhaps the time has come to have a review of the role of that group and of Teagasc, if the solutions and the proposals they came up with are what got us here. If we are to believe the Minister, he acted on their advice and guidance and as his action was limited, they must be questioned.
I second Senator Daly's motion. It is very important.
I thank the Minister of State for coming into the House tonight because we have a crisis and farmers are facing a double whammy from weather woes, as costs surge due to fodder bills, while milk collections slump. Demand has been reported as strong among dairy and dry stock farmers for the thousands of tonnes of hay, haylage and maize that has been imported recently. Fianna Fáil is calling for the hardship fund and meal voucher schemes and that is crucial. Farming is the backbone of Irish society. There are farmers selling their animals to feed what remains on the farm. Dairy bosses have warned that further milk price cuts are inevitable due to weakening global demand. Meanwhile, Teagasc estimates put the reduced profitability for each day that cows are not grazing at between €2.20 and €3 per cow. That needs to be looked at. Since November 2017, Fianna Fáil has been calling on the Minister to address the deepening crisis and implement a fodder scheme to establish a fund for affected farmers. The response from the Minister of State was that Teagasc assessed the fodder supply in Ireland and that 2017 was, in fact, a record year for grass growth and that there was sufficient fodder in the country. That worries me now because I need to know whether the Minister of State is listening to the farmers on the ground who are out digging the soil and doing the work for the Irish people. That needs to be addressed.
The agrifood sector in Ireland in 2017 showed an increase in exports of 13% to €13.5 billion. When employment inputs, processing and marketing are included, the agrifood sector accounts for almost 10% of employment. The agrifood sector is one of Ireland's most important indigenous manufacturing sectors, accounting for employment of approximately 167,500 people. It includes almost 700 food and drink firms that export food and seafood to more than 180 countries worldwide. Economic activity in the agriculture and food sector produces a far bigger return than the equivalent activity in other trade sectors of the economy. That is because agrifood companies source 74% of raw materials and services from Irish suppliers, compared with 43% from all manufacturing companies.
At the annual general meeting of the Irish Farmers Association, IFA, the Minister outlined that the previous scheme, that is, the €150 million agriculture cashflow support loan scheme was a success and that the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine intended to build on that. In conjunction with the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine has put together a new €300 million loan fund, of which 40% was ring-fenced for the agrifood, small medium enterprise, SME, sector. I seek clarification from the Minister of State as to how much of that funding is to go ahead because I have heard different stories. The Minister of State should confirm that 40% will be ring-fenced for the agrifood SMEs. In light of the current crisis, this needs to be implemented as soon as possible. Funding is crucial because farmers are asking why low-cost loans in Ireland are made available at interest rates that are still well above those being charged by mainland European banks on their farm loans. I agree with my colleague, Senator Paul Daly. We need to have a hardship fund. That is crucial.
The ongoing fodder crisis is particularly severe for suckler and sheep farmers who do not have a monthly cheque coming in and whose farming enterprise do not sell stock at this time of year. Cashflow is a significant issue for suckler and sheep farmers and with virtually no fodder left to move around the country, meal vouchers to supplement fodder are now essential to alleviate the hardship. The farmers have been arguing that meal vouchers were an essential component to fend off this crisis since last December. The Minister of State has been aware of this crisis last December and it is now the middle of April. We now have what I can never remember, namely, a farming crisis. Farmers are proud, hardworking people and we in Fianna Fáil are fighting for their rights. I acknowledge that emergency assistance is available to farmers whose animals are experiencing serious welfare issues and to farmers who are unable to cope with the situation. I urge all farmers to use this facility, which was set up precisely for the conditions farmers are now experiencing. I am very disappointed that we are in this position today. There is always the good news, in that we believe beef will be exported to China. All these things are welcome and we get all these good announcements but the reason I am here today is to ask the Minister of State to listen to the farmers because at the end of the day, they are the backbone of the country. It was the farmers who have taken us out of recession. Ireland is known for its farming and green grass. If the Minister of State does not listen to the farmers we are on a road to nowhere. I have seconded this motion and I hope the Minister of State will support it because this is what the farmers are looking for. I will be very disappointed if Fine Gael do not stand up and fight for the farmers.
I move amendment No. 3:
To delete all words after “Seanad Eireann” and substitute the following:
“notes:- the major role agriculture plays in creating employment, generating economic activity and acting as a custodian of the countryside in Ireland;
- the competitive advantage Ireland has in sustainable livestock production, particularly dairy, beef and sheep farming, based on a grass-based production system, which is both relatively low cost and carbon efficient;
- the shared Food Wise 2025 strategy for the development of the sector, which highlights the opportunities to grow the value of farm output, value added and agri-food exports; growth that must be managed in an environmentally sustainable manner;
- the unique vulnerability and exposure of agriculture to fluctuations in the weather;
- the on-going hardship due to fluctuations in the weather and the sacrifices farming families have made to protect their livestock;
- the role the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Teagasc, Co-operatives, Farming organisations and farmers have played in working through this challenging period;
- the securing of an increased advance payment in October 2017 under Pillar I and Pillar II of the Common Agriculture Policy (CAP);
- the payment of €1.6 billion in CAP direct payments to Irish farmers before the end of 2017, providing an important source of income support for farm families;
- that for the first time, in winter/spring of 2017/2018, under a new Sheep Welfare Scheme, advance payments totalling €16 million issued to sheep farmers, with a further €3 million to issue in the coming weeks, providing valuable support to the sheep sector;
- the securing of an additional €25 million in Budget 2018 for payments under the Areas of Natural Constraint (ANC) Scheme, where the highest level of support is targeted at those who are faced with the highest level of constraint on their land, bringing the total amount allocated to the 2018 ANC Scheme to €227 million;
- the prioritisation by Teagasc of the provision of direct support to these farmers through fodder budgeting and nutritional advice, not only then, but throughout the winter and spring;
- the convening of a stakeholder group chaired by Teagasc comprising of all the main stakeholders including feed merchants and Co-operatives, banking and farm bodies to monitor the fodder situation;
- the timely introduction of a targeted Transport Subsidy Scheme to address the shortage of supplies of fodder in the North and North West in January this year;
- that the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine is in regular contact with all the stakeholders following the introduction of this scheme;
- the timely introduction of a Fodder Import Support Scheme to cover all Co-operatives and importers approved by the Department for Agriculture, Food and the Marine to import fodder;
- the extension of the deadline for the submission of Nitrates derogation plans until 30th April, 2018;
- the extension of grazing under the Traditional Hay Meadows (THM) measure in GLAS until 1st May, 2018;
- the securing of a commitment towards flexibility in the ‘three crop rule’ under Greening requirements in Pillar 1 of the CAP;
- the availability of rapid emergency feed assistance to any farmer facing immediate feed shortage through the Department's Animal Welfare Helpline that supports the Farm Animal Welfare Advisory Council's Early Warning Intervention System (EWS);
- the need to ensure that farmers are adequately equipped with the necessary knowledge and advice to deal with fluctuations in the weather and to keep fodder supplies under review;
- the one-to-one assistance being provided to farmers by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine to lodge their Basic Payment Scheme applications;
- the continuous monitoring of the situation by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and Teagasc;
- the increased regularity of severe weather events and the need to consider the inclusion of appropriate risk management tools to mitigate against the impacts of such events on farming enterprises in the next iteration of the CAP.”
I welcome the Minister of State to the Seanad Chamber and I welcome the opportunity to debate this issue. The sun is shining in Dublin today but I know from talking to farmers in Mayo and elsewhere that it is not necessarily shining there and in fact shines a lot less. While the sun is shining, farmers are dealing with a grim situation. The Minister, Deputy Creed, appeared before the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine last week and going back to the Easter weekend, because the weather did not turn and we still had a cold biting wind, there was no growth. The ground was wet and ground conditions were poor. We would have hoped that things might have advanced naturally a lot better than they have but that is not the case. Animals still are being housed. Last weekend, some farmers attempted to let their cattle out for a few days, especially dairy farmers, but they are back in again. In the meantime, since we last spoke, it has been necessary to provide another two weeks of fodder for these animals. Animals still cannot be let out at present because they will dig up the ground and no crops will grow to provide fodder for next year. Farmers are in an awful bind. We talk about low-cost loans and about flexibility with banks and co-operatives but there are farmers who cannot get credit from their co-operatives any more. Co-operatives are places with which dairy farmers in particular deal but this is not so much the case with suckler farmers. They are not necessarily getting credit and the banks are not necessarily showing flexibility. We cannot assume they are and this is a predicament farmers face. They continue to have to feed their animals. I argue that in the north and north west, the fact that this problem was coming down the line was first highlighted when many farmers failed to cut a second crop of silage last autumn, as they normally would have done. We knew immediately that there would be a problem, that farmers would not be able to provide for their animals in the normal way, that is, the most efficient and cheapest way that farmers can. Since then, things have got worse around the country with the extended winter and bad weather. I argue that the farmers in the west and north west are in the worst and most difficult position because some of them have already been buying fodder since January. Many of them have been buying additional meal to stretch their fodder. I must agree that the initial transport scheme that was suggested worked very well. I welcome the flexibilities that were introduced but farmers are dealing with a depressing situation. My fear- not just for farmers - comes from considering the input that farming and the farming community have to local economies.Rural market towns throughout the country are dependent on farmers and their spending power. If farmers are up to their necks in debt trying to pay for fodder, with another bill coming down the tracks for fertiliser as they will have to fertilise the land, there will be far less in their pockets for spending in the local economy. I foresee a depression in rural market towns because if the farmers' circumstances are on the up, the circumstances of these towns are on the up but, currently, that is not the case. There is a case to be made, with strict criteria, for farmers who are in very difficult situations to be assisted. If we do not find some type of formula, and we all accept that the weather is not going to improve suddenly and that we will have to deal with varied and inclement weather for longer periods, many people will leave farming. Many of the farms where I live are marginal in any case, so why would one opt to farm when there are plenty of options in cities? We are near to having full employment so why would one plan a career in farming if one is a suckler cow farmer? These are very big challenges. I cited this at the committee because it is quite sobering.
The reality is that this is a weather problem. I agree with the Minister, Deputy Creed, that if he had announced last November or December that he was going to start importing fodder, people would have laughed at him. That does not mean one should not try to take measures. There was fodder in other parts of the country, and the issue was how to get it to the farmers who needed it. I believe the crisis is as much a financial crisis for farmers, especially for those in the west and north west. They have paid on a large scale and most of them have not been able to avail of the transport subsidy scheme because it was unworkable for them.
We cannot blame the Minister for the weather. In 2014, according to figures from the Department, there were 6.3 million cattle in this country. In 2018, before counting calves and the additional stock that are due to be counted by May, the national herd is 7.4 million cattle. In all our plans, our objective is to ramp up production on all sides, so this will be a recurring problem. We must get a handle on how we are going to deal with this into the future. There are issues with overstocking, which some farmers have been encouraged to do as there is no milk quota any more. There must be a reality check about what is happening or we will have farmers on the bread line and people will not wish to get involved in farming. If that happens we will not achieve the Food Wise 2025 targets.
I welcome the news about the opening of the Chinese market which was announced by the Minister, Deputy Creed, during the week. There is great potential there, but we must get this issue right. I accept that the Minister is monitoring the situation on an ongoing basis but we will continue to be reminded of these realities, both in this House and in the agriculture committee, and of the fall-out from what has happened with the weather. If it does not improve, we will be talking about this issue a great deal more and very soon again.
I thank the Minister for attending this debate. I am conscious that the Minister comes from a rural constituency and has a strong background in agriculture. As he represents an agricultural constituency, he is clearly aware of the challenges in agriculture. Wicklow is a diverse county in terms of agriculture. It has a lot of marginal land but there is also very good land in west Wicklow, with which I am particularly familiar.
We all acknowledge that agriculture is enormously affected by its vulnerability to the weather. That is a factor which we must take into account. I have brought forward a number of Commencement matters in this House regarding a meal or fodder allowance and other interventions, and only a few weeks ago the Minister told us there is loads of fodder in the country, that it is a commodity and people are holding onto it, so it has become valuable and expensive. That is what he told the House, but the reality is that there are difficulties. To summarise, we are talking about farmers' welfare, animal welfare and family farm income. It boils down to that so let us keep the language simple about what resonates with farmers. It is about putting a loaf on the table every week and the family farm income. We must not lose sight of that. The hardship of the weather has had a real impact on those people.
I raised the issue of GLAS payments and the deadlines that were required for soil testing and soil cores. I told the Minister about farms in Tuam where cattle have been kept in sheds since September and they are still in them this week, up to their oxters in dirt and muck. The farms are in muck. The farmers have been told they are not going to get their GLAS payments because they have not filed their soil bores. One cannot carry out a proper soil analysis from a soil bore in marginal land that has been swamped for nine months. There must be flexibility to deal with this issue.
I thank Fianna Fáil for taking the opportunity of its Private Members' time to bring this important issue before the House for discussion. To focus on the motion, it has set out nine key actions which it calls on the Government to do. The first is to set up a hardship fund to help small to medium-sized farms, the second is to introduce a meal voucher scheme for farmers affected by the weather and the third is to make low cost credit available to farmers to help them pay the costs of sourcing fodder. The fourth action is to deal with the GLAS payment issues and the sheep welfare scheme, the fifth is to dedicate a budget to the Department's early warning scheme, EWS, and there is much merit in that, the sixth is to establish a special standing committee to monitor and report to the Department on the supplies of fodder, to keep supplies moving and to have data in that regard and the seventh is to halt temporarily all cross-compliance inspections on farms as well as Bord Bia farm audits. I have an issue with that. This is about quality and standards, even though we must acknowledge the severity of the weather and its impact. The eighth action is the inclusion of a permanent scheme in the RDP to compensate farmers for losses.
I cannot see the Minister objecting to any of that. I realise that he is constrained by resources and so forth, but these are tough times and there is a crisis. The proposals are worthy of support and need to be addressed. I am conscious that the Minister represents these farmers. He is not an urban Minister but is in the heart of agriculture, as is the Minister of State in the Department. Some type of action plan is required. This debate is timely and these are concrete proposals. I will be interested to hear how the Minister responds to them.
I wish to take this opportunity to welcome the good news in the Minister, Deputy Creed's, announcement that, at last, Ireland has been granted access to the Chinese meat market. That is an enormous achievement. We cannot underestimate it. I also acknowledge the work of Bord Bia in opening markets. We regularly talk about Food Wise 2025, the Bord Bia strategy for agriculture and horticulture and the expectations in that regard. It has to be a win-win situation for agriculture. Farmers are diversifying and they are going into organic production, but they need support to do that. In acknowledging the work of Bord Bia, I also acknowledge the very significant funding the Government gives that body. It has a good big budget. I received a copy of the top ten trade destinations for agrifood which was produced by the Department. I will not go into the figures but they are the United Kingdom, United States, China-Hong Kong, the Netherlands, France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, Spain and Poland. I could go on to name the top 20, which include the United Arab Emirates.
We have also seen the opening of markets for live exports of cattle. These are always controversial, but this is about the economy, business and scale. There is much good news in agriculture. It is due to diversification and meeting the challenges. It is also about having Government support. There is a really good news story about agriculture. I am also conscious of the national planning framework and what that envisages for agricultural communities in terms of other soft options and other ways of diversifying in agriculture to sustain rural communities, which is critical. However, I know too well the other side of coin. I have family members in the Glen of Aherlow who are considering getting out of farming or leasing their farms. I have family members in Kildare who are struggling on good land. There are challenges. One needs large scale and quality of scale to make farming produce an income that will sustain a family.I will conclude by stating that what Fianna Fáil is proposing is reasonable and timely. A positive response from the Government on this issue is long overdue. We must remember that it all boils down to farmers' welfare, animal welfare and family farm incomes. We need to work together collectively to sustain those incomes.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Doyle, who I have known for a long time, to the House. I am delighted Senator Boyhan mentioned the Glen of Aherlow. It is a place very close to my heart. I grew up close to it. I remember the first oil crisis in November and December of 1973. We went from 30p for a gallon of petrol to 50p overnight. Schools closed down for longer over Christmas, which was joyful for some of us at the time. It is now unreasonable of us not to consider that the Irish winter is longer and deeper. I hope I am wrong about that, but we cannot plan based on a five-month winter. We have to see it as being closer to seven months. If one does well and gets a shorter winter than that, as the fellow says one then will have money in the bank or some assets for next year.
There is no doubt that the removal of the quota increased the numbers of cattle and livestock in this country. If, in addition to that, winters are extending, as they have been prior to that removal and since, there is less time for cattle to be out on grass. The hallmark of our cattle and horses is that they are out on grass. They cannot be swimming on it, however, it has to be dry. Fodder cannot be cut off it if it is not dry. We have to plan differently. I will bring a military analogy to this. If one does not know when to hold one's ground or when to be more conservative and retreat, one will, to mix metaphors, only plough into trouble. It is hard to have that instinct to pull back, consolidate and take a little bit of a hit when one can bear it and to then recalibrate and move on. There is no doubt but that our winters are getting longer and more difficult.
We have a precious product in agriculture across all the elements of the sector including the area of horse breeding. Central to that, as I have already said, is livestock being able to be outdoors working off grass for as much time as possible. We provide approximately 10% of the world's baby formula. In the bad early days of the recession, Dell went wallop in Limerick and Waterford Crystal went into receivership. Does the Minister of State remember that winter? It was the end of 2008 and the beginning of 2009. The thing that gave many people hope at that time was that our agriculture and agrifood industry kept going and thrived. Getting the golden egg out of the goose by killing it is not a good plan. We need to hold and preserve what we have. If we have to consolidate a bit, that is what we have to do.
I want to slightly change tack. One could say that agriculture and agrifood is the backbone of rural Ireland. Where I come from in the Golden Vale, small towns such as Tipperary, Fermoy and Mitchelstown are very different from what they were like 100 years ago because agriculture has changed but yet, agriculture and agrifood is still the backbone of rural Ireland. There are more families with disability in rural Ireland than there are farm families. I will give that as an example. There are people who are not in farming but who are small shopkeepers, business people and this, that and the other. There are families trying to survive who are not farming. Many farm families also have a second income. In fact, it is pretty much necessary to have one now.
I want to make one real solid point. We need to not merely read the signals - we have read them - we must do something fairly quickly to get back to sustainability. It is not a mediocre industry. It is what Ministers go out to promote with trade delegations in March and at other times of the year. I was with some friends in Germany two weeks ago. They were proud to show they had Irish butter in their fridge. I just take that for granted but let us not do that. We have something so precious that we need to step back. There was a bit of madness in recent years where stock numbers were ratcheted up. As far as I know, there is not one extra acre of land in Ireland since the quotas went. There is probably less in marginal ways. There is not one extra acre. From the 1970s onward, we had doubled and trebled and done magnificent things with productivity. We do not have too much room on that side any more. It is not like the early 1970s when we went into the EEC, as it was then, when there was plenty of room to improve performance in many different ways.
I will leave it at that. We talk about information and communications technology, ICT, and all these brilliant things but we need to hold onto this thing that is so core to us. We saw this during the bubble. It did not bother us if manufacturing firms around the country went bust because lads and women who worked in them were able to jump up onto diggers on building sites. We need to keep the ordinary, real, indigenous, practical things that people need going. Agriculture is at the core of that.
I thank the Minister of State for speaking to us this evening on the difficult issue of the fodder crisis. Reflecting on my own contact with farmers over recent months, there appear to be two aspects to the crisis. If we look at this year, farmers, particularly in the west and north west, have had to house their livestock early. We had a bad summer which resulted in late silage and therefore quality was, at times, compromised. As we are all very aware, we have had a prolonged winter and farmers have been extremely stressed and exhausted trying to support their animals as best they can. Obviously, the big concern is around access to credit to purchase fodder and meal over that timeframe. As the Minister of State is aware, this is an issue I have raised with him on a number of occasions, particularly with regard to the transport scheme that was introduced. As he knows, I had concerns at the time with regard to certain counties being included within that transport scheme.
From speaking and working with quite a number of farmers locally, I know that corrective action was taken by many of them. Some farmers bought fodder locally, as that is how it works in rural communities. Others sold stock. Cattle prices were quite good. That allowed them to take a level of corrective action. However, we know that we are seeing the impact of climate change. There is no doubt about that.As Senators Dolan and Boyhan said, this is more of a norm than an exception. We certainly need to work with farmers to ensure they now plan for longer winters with regard to fodder reserves. This is crucial because we need to see a situation where, at the very minimum, one month's feed is planned for as a reserve.
There is much debate around the meal vouchers. Currently when farmers run out of fodder we know that the animals' diet should consist of a maximum of 50% meal and 50% fodder. The introduction of meal vouchers at this stage is not the full solution. It is positive that the import scheme is now introduced but for the future we need to be proactive in trying to ensure planning for longer winters and that we work with all of the different agencies such as Teagasc and farming organisations to assist farmers. The positives within the agricultural sector have been mentioned here. I have listened to a number of radio debates on the immense work undertaken by Bord Bia and by Department officials to try to progress the market in China. I am very aware that a huge amount of work is being done to diversify and to support farmers in the best ways possible so they can make a sustainable living. In this regard, we need to learn lessons from what happened over this prolonged period and we need to try to support farmers to ensure there is a greater fodder reserve. This is especially difficult in the north and the north west when one is dealing with more marginal land.
Sinn Fein welcomes the motion. With regard to the analysis of how we got to this point I cannot see how anyone could argue with the wording of the motion. I also cannot see how anyone could argue with the solutions proposed. They are completely in keeping with what the farming organisations and the farmers, as representatives across rural Ireland, are telling us. We could not see anything wrong with this motion so I am very disappointed that the Government has submitted a counter motion. We have sought to add to the motion with a couple of points, which I shall now address.
Action on this issue is long overdue. The fodder crisis is playing havoc with farmers' well-being. We have all heard the stories of the worry and the serious strain that farmers are under. Farmers are extremely angry. Their warnings and our warnings have been ignored. The extent and the impact of this crisis cannot be overstated. Macra na Feirme has said:
[We urge] farmers not to suffer in silence, speaking to a friend or neighbour can help ease the mental burden. The amount of stress, anxiety and worry in the farming profession is enormous. Farmers are responsible for so much but cannot control the weather.
Farmers seeking to buy in fodder drastically outnumber those attempting to sell forage on. To help alleviate the burden of the fodder crisis on farms, a new sourcing app, developed by Herdwatch, has created a fodder platform to connect farmers who can help each other out. An article, however, published a week ago showed that the list of those seeking to buy fodder is nearly 20 times the level of those selling, with more than 200 farmers seeking fodder compared with a mere 12 suppliers. This crisis is nothing new; it has been happening for years in wetter parts of the State such as in the west and the north west. I put it to the Minister of State that the Minister should not have waited until the crisis hit Cork before paying attention. The hard lessons from this fodder crisis must be learned by the Government.
The drive towards huge expansion in agriculture as outlined in Food Wise 2025 - the ten-year plan for the agrifood sector - may look good on paper, but in the context of Brexit and climate change is this feasible or indeed desirable? Avoiding another fodder crisis needs discussion and proposals from the farm organisations, Teagasc and the Department. This may involve a reduction in stocking levels. Sinn Féin has called for action on this issue for years. Since last September we warned the Minister of the number of farmers in the north west who had been unable to get second cuts of silage and had to house cattle early due to severe rain in August and September. Last October we warned again of a looming crisis but our concerns were dismissed by the Minister, Deputy Creed, who continued to claim that there was no crisis and that there was lots of fodder in the country. In December, farmers, including some from my area of Donegal, contacted Teagasc regarding fodder shortages, with the majority of the farmers having a 50% shortfall in fodder. We warned that the proposed fodder action group would be kicking the can down the road but our warning fell on deaf ears. In January of this year we called again on the Minister to provide meal vouchers to help subsidise the cost of meal, a feed which farmers are assured of as to the quality. Sinn Féin has been consistent in raising this issue with the Minister but he has systemically ignored our calls.
The family farm is an integral part of rural Ireland and Irish society. Making it sustainable is a key aim for the future of our State. We cannot allow circumstances to arise where only the big, industrialised farmer can survive and the small family farm goes to the wall for lack of foresight and planning to avoid crises. We call on the Government to properly compensate and support our farming community for its losses during this crisis. I reiterate that the proposals in this motion from Fianna Fáil must be agreeable in seeking to address this crisis. They are sensible and practical proposals and the Minister of State cannot disagree with them.
The Sinn Féin amendment seeks to address the need for assistance to farmers to drain marginal land to prevent a fodder crisis from happening again. Climate change issues, specifically more frequent and heavier rainfall, are serious for farming. This cannot be allowed to continue to happen every year and measures must be taken to avoid fodder crises. More and better drainage could alleviate some of the waterlogging that has meant farmers, particularly in the north west, could not get a second cut of silage. Combined with a long, cold winter, which meant that spring growth was delayed, this created the severe shortages. If accepted our amendment would go a long way to accomplish this.
At the very least it is vital that the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Teagasc and the farming organisations, pull together to learn the lessons from all of this. We must understand that climate is changing and that we have to look at the macro farming model on this island to see how we can sustain farming. We must keep a particular eye on it. The Minister of State is aware of the statistics from the Council for the West; 42% of family farms across the west of Ireland have gone in the last two decades. There has been a huge reduction in the numbers of young farmers in Ireland in the last ten years. We have huge issues already and we need to address this, look at the long-term sustainability and learn the lessons.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Doyle. There has been a change in farming over recent years. We have gone on to a high stocking rate, which poses challenges. I come from a farming background, and although some would say that my own local area is half urban and half rural, the rural area is one where there is very intense farming. There is a lot of dairy farming and it is set at a very high stocking rate and people must plan for something like that. Farmers can plan for so many weeks of the year the amount of fodder they think they might require, which is an understanding farmers acquire from their own experience. They also tend to provide for an additional period when the weather may not be suitable for leaving stock out. So to be fair, farmers do plan.
The last six or seven months have been an unusual period where weather has not been on the side of farmers. Climate change is something that appears to be posing challenges for us in Ireland. Nevertheless, we are very lucky as a country because we have stock on land for a longer period than most of Europe. That is something we sometimes seem to ignore. Cattle grazing naturally, where milk is produced in that way, is one reason we can produce the produce we do. Most milk produced is from cattle out on grass rather than indoors, as in other jurisdictions. Over recent years, farmers have faced challenges and they are aware of them, but this year was exceptional. The Minister did respond in a timely manner in setting up the transport subsidy scheme and the stakeholder group composed of people from the farming organisations, the co-operatives and food merchants which was established to monitor the situation and see how to react. There is also the fodder import support scheme to co-operatives and importers. The Minister has responded and put in place the necessary measures to assist farmers.
We must now look at how farmers are advised. It is an issue I have increasingly come across. As someone involved in the legal profession, I regularly deal with farmers and one complaint I often hear from them is that they are constantly advised about increasing stocking rates. They find themselves under a lot of pressure and are being told they are not competitive enough because they do not have the same stocking rate as someone two miles down the road. We need to get a balance on this. In looking for a balance it is important that we ensure we advise farmers about planning and ensuring that there is adequate fodder and that they take into account the extra two or three weeks they might need to keep stock inside.
This has been an exceptional year. The dairy farmers are lucky in that milk prices have been extremely good and hopefully that will continue. We have a great product to sell and we are doing very well in that regard. The recent success in the Chinese market is proof of how good we are doing and the products that we are producing. The farming community adds to the local economy but also the wider economy in the number of people employed in the downstream industries. It is a huge industry in this country which adds greatly to our exports and it is important that the farming community gets the support it needs when difficulties arise. The Minister has responded appropriately and has delivered. Hopefully in the next week to two weeks we will see the change the farmers need to see in the weather in order to allow stock out to graze rather than feed them indoors. I thank the Minister for coming before the House and dealing with this issue.
I thank the Minister for coming before the House to facilitate this debate. I fully concur with the remarks of our spokesperson, Senator Mark Daly, and Senator Murnane O'Connor and the case they outlined, the notice of amendment to the motion which was made and the Sinn Féin amendment on the drainage scheme. That makes a very good point and would provide much help, especially in the Shannon Basin. There is a call from many of the areas within the Shannon Basin and also the Boyne Basin.
The whole rural community is suffering due to the somewhat unexpected, prolonged winter we have had and the heavy rains but we must also call into question the Government's inaction. I fully agree with the proposals outlined in my party's motion, including: to immediately bring forward a hardship fund to help small and medium-sized farmers who have been severely impacted by the fodder crisis and the lack of available fodder; the introduction of a meal voucher scheme for farmers affected - they are well known to all the Teagasc offices up and down the country and local IFA representatives; and to swiftly make available low cost credit for farmers, which would alleviate many of the immediate problems. Hopefully the next couple of weeks will see us over this bump. If one were to look outside today, it is hard to believe that land is as wet as it is. It was no one's intention that we would end up where we are but we must take measures. If there was another week of rain, we would be in a seriously bad position. There is no time like the present and it is time to act.
I welcome the Minister of State and the opportunity to contribute to this very important debate. The current fodder issue is something we need to learn from. We are now looking at a situation where there may be five to six month long winters. When we look at the question of fodder we must also look at who is advising our farmers and working with them. I am a dairy farmer and I am buying fodder because I have to. We would usually have the cows out day and night by St Patrick's Day, but our cows are inside every night and most days because of the environment and the amount of rain that is falling.
Two colleagues in the House are on the agriculture committee with me. It is something that we need to examine in detail. I question what Teagasc has been doing on this matter. We have had situations where Teagasc was pushing a jersey cross on farmers, with 12 to 14 week winters and it does not work. We have to look at the green fields experiment and all the issues attached to that site. We are pushing something that does not work unless one has the ability to put something into the system when things go wrong, which they do. The weather situation has seen a winter of effectively 21 weeks, from last October until now. It is phenomenal. One would not believe the amount of rain that fell in the last ten days in Cork unless one was there. That is what we need to plan for. We need to look at a herd to which meal and silage can be brought and move away from the jersey cross proposal that has been pushed for the last 15 years.
We also need to talk about the tillage sector. The tillage lads are really under pressure, nothing was ploughed and nothing will be sown. They are looking at a situation where they will be unable to put in spring grain for another few weeks, beet will run until May and maize will definitely run until May. The next big issue will be from where the fodder for next spring will come. Very little of the first cut silage will be done in May, if at all; we are looking at this being done from June onwards. In that case there is a question of quality. When it comes to the second cut there will be a big issue with quantity. The planning for next winter will be the big issue.
The last time we were in this mess was in 2013. There are 365,000 extra dairy cows since then, and they all need to be fed.That is the issue we need to look at with regard to Food Wise 2025 and our policy vision. I personally believe that there is a body of work for the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine to do in really looking at our advice for farmers. Farmers have become slaves to the system and something needs to be looked at. The advice they have been given regarding the length of the winters and the early spring rotation which suggests having livestock out by 10 or 11 February only works on some lands in some parts of the world. There is an awful lot of work at which we really have to look.
Farmers are stressed. They are physically exhausted and under pressure financially, but they are mentally drained. It is an issue about which we need to start talking. The farmers out there have put up with literally 20 weeks of winter. They are mentally exhausted. Farmers need to talk about what is happening. They need to talk to Teagasc and to their friends and neighbours. Unless they have that conversation about how they are feeling we will have accidents and tragedies. That conversation needs to happen. What I would like to get out of this debate tonight is that conversation, one in which farmers will say that they are under pressure and that they are feeling it mentally. They should talk to their families and to their parish. The parish will have to come in to ensure that we can, as a community, get through this.
The next few days will tell a lot. At the moment it is raining in Cork, and I mean it is raining. If that continues, we will have a very tough few days ahead of us. I am buying in fodder because I need to. We have to ensure that we get over the next few weeks. The next ten days will be crucial. Ground conditions are terrible. I ask the Minister of State to get personally involved in talking about that mental issue and the stress farmers are under. I ask him to ask farmers to get involved in that conversation in order to get the message out there that if farmers are under pressure, the best thing to do is to talk about it.
I was listening to the debate from my office. I commend Senator Paul Daly for tabling the motion and I acknowledge the Sinn Féin amendment. I support both. This is a crucial issue which affects a large number of farmers and farms across the country. It is having more of an impact economically and socially on smaller farmers than on larger farmers, given the capital constraints which smaller farmers are under and their lack of ability to raise any finance to buy necessary feeding material. In the north west this has had, and continues to have, a huge impact. As Senator Lombard has said, despite the fact that the sun is shining today, land in the north west is effectively waterlogged and it is very difficult to farm. I come from a small farm. We ran out of material just like other farms. The cost of replacing or replenishing it is very substantial.
I know that this is an issue for which the Department has been heavily criticised. However, while some of that criticism is fair, there are other issues outside of the control of the Department and farmers which need to be taken into consideration and addressed for the long term. There is a short-term issue here. The Minister and the Department have spoken about the establishment of a hardship fund. The co-ops have done some valuable work. There is a short-term solution with regard to getting people through this process. There are probably also farmers out there who are too proud to ask for assistance. That is also a big issue in respect of farmers who find themselves isolated financially but who are also isolated because they feel too proud to ask for support. That issue needs to be dealt with compassionately on the ground. I ask that the Department instruct Teagasc to deal with this issue on the ground in as effective a manner as possible, whether that be through holding clinics or local meetings, or getting on the ground. It is fair enough to set up and announce all the schemes, but we have to grapple with the issue locally as well and provide whatever support we can.
In terms of financial assistance to get through this crisis, the warm weather will come and temperatures are due to rise. That is a fact. It is also a fact, however, that our climate is changing for the long term and that climate change is causing massive problems. There has been research done on the effects of projected climate change on Irish agriculture over the next 30 years. My fear is that the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine is perhaps not doing enough to address this. It is coming at us fast. Projections from Teagasc and other academic researchers predict that rainfall will increase by 10% by 2050. That is during the winter period. By 2050 rainfall in the summer period is expected to decrease by between 12% and 17%. There are changing circumstances coming towards us. That will have an impact on the type of grass that will grow and on the economic output of each farm. We have to be ready for that and farmers have to be ready for that.
We need to look at making sure that the best available research is made available to farmers at the local level. We need to provide reassurance that whatever training is required will be provided, but also that financial assistance will be provided to farmers who need to change their farming enterprise model. That will have to happen if we are to meet the objectives set out, for example, in Food Wise 2025, particularly the productivity objectives. If we are going to meet those objectives post 2020 we need to look at bringing all of that research together, informing farmers and assisting them economically.
There is much work to be done. There is a short-term programme required over the coming weeks to get farmers through this very difficult period. I would love to hear the Minister of State's perspective on the long-term strategy because we can expect that this will happen again next winter. The probability is high that it will. What is the long-term strategy not just for next winter, but for every other winter between now and 2050 and 2080, when climate change will have had a much bigger impact on the world and our environmental footprint? There is a longer-term issue. We politicians generally talk about short-term cycles. Everyone is now focused on the terrible crisis before us this week, next week and the week after. We sometimes forget once the sunshine comes. There is a need for long-term planning. That may well mean that a certain element of the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, budget will have to be used to assist farmers, particularly younger farmers, in adapting their enterprises in order to be economically viable into the future so that we will not see a situation in which smaller farms are gobbled up due to Teagasc not providing them with the wherewithal, resources and research capabilities. That is all I have to say. I am glad to have the opportunity to support the motion here tonight.
I will call on the Minister of State. Just to alert people who are looking at the sunshine, I was talking to a farmer in my own area a while ago and he has lambs inside in a shed under red lamps. He said that there is no sun shining in west Cork today. It is raining heavily there.
I hope I will get through it all. I hope Senators do not mind that I waited until everybody had made their contributions before thanking them. It was a far more measured debate than we had last night in the Dáil. Many of the points which were made are very reasonable and I would like to acknowledge that at the outset. Just before I start into my script, I would like to note that Senator Ó Domhnaill is the only Member here who was on the previous committee. We talked about long-term strategy and put together a report on optimising land use potential.We also compiled a report in advance of the lifting of quotas. Our summary statement, which appeared in the RTÉ report, included the phrase "get better before you get bigger". There are salutary lessons in some of what is contained in those two reports and perhaps we could return to them. I served as Chairman of the committee but it was the members who brought the reports forward.
Being from proud farming stock that has farmed for six generations on the same high-altitude land - I was feeding my suckler cattle and sheep this morning - I am acutely aware of the challenges presented by the weather and the dramatic impact the latter can have on farming communities in particular. As we are all aware, this past year there has been exceptionally bad weather that has brought unwelcome hardship to farming families. The Minister, Deputy Creed, and I have closely monitored evolving weather events and have worked, through our Department, with Teagasc, co-ops, farming organisations and farmers to find ways to help the farming community to deal with this very challenging time.
In response to the problems experienced in the west and north west in late autumn and during the winter, the Minister and I took a number of steps to ensure the availability of fodder. Teagasc was asked to prioritise direct support for farmers at risk of not having enough fodder for the winter by providing fodder budgeting and nutritional advice throughout the winter and into the spring. The payment of farm supports to assist farmers with cashflow was prioritised. The Department has paid out over €1.6 billion to Irish farmers under Pillar 1 and Pillar 2 and will continue to make residual payments. The Minister convened a fodder group, chaired by Teagasc and consisting of all the key stakeholders, to ensure a co-ordinated approach to the issue of fodder availability in affected areas. A targeted fodder transport support measure, with an allocation of €500,000, was introduced by my Department on 29 January 2018 to provide additional assistance to livestock farmers in the west and north west who were severely affected by ongoing fodder shortages.
Throughout this challenging time, my Department’s animal welfare helpline, which is run by a dedicated team, has been continuously available to offer assistance to any farmer experiencing animal welfare issues, including the provision of essential feed so that no farm animal need suffer due to hunger.
As we know, the continuation of unseasonably cold weather during March delayed the onset of spring, inhibited grass growth and resulted in livestock having to be housed for longer than usual. As a result, the fodder problem became more widespread and extended to the more heavily stocked regions of the south and east. In response, Department officials arranged meetings with Teagasc and industry representatives on 29 March and 4 April to assess the extent of the problem and identify what further action might be taken. Teagasc established a register of fodder to identify suppliers and buyers of fodder locally in order to free up any surplus supplies. A decision was taken at ministerial level to extend the fodder transport measure to all counties and to introduce a fodder import support measure, with an allocation of €1.5 million, to ensure that there was sufficient fodder available to feed the national herd.
The fodder import measure was introduced on 5 April to reduce the cost to farmers of imported forage from outside the island of Ireland and will run until 30 April. This measure, which is being operated through the co-ops and other approved importers, is helping livestock farmers to access fodder from abroad without having to contend in full with the substantially increased cost of transport. The measure will support the importation of approximately 20,000 tons of fodder into the country, if required, and will be kept under review until the current crisis is over.
In addressing the problem of fodder shortage, a comprehensive approach has been taken and all avenues have been explored. For example, following engagement between my Department and the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, the Road Safely Authority of Ireland has agreed to greater operational flexibility for road hauliers engaged in the transport of fodder and feed because of increased demand. The GLAS traditional hay meadow grazing date has been extended to 1 May next. This releases an additional 27,000 ha of land that would otherwise not have been available to be used for grazing livestock. The closing date for nitrates derogation applications has been extended to 30 April. This will ensure that agricultural advisers have more time to assist farmers in planning how to cope with current difficulties until grass growth resumes and ground conditions improve.
Planning in respect of balancing payments under certain Pillar 2 schemes is under way with a view to commencement of balancing payments, including the sheep welfare scheme in the coming weeks followed by the GLAS scheme in mid-May. The animal welfare helpline continues to be available to farmers. A small number of inquiries has been received and the Department's local offices will arrange assistance where needed.
The Minister and I are very conscious of the fact that this prolonged winter has put some individual farmers under pressure in terms of cashflow. In recognition of this, the Minister invited the CEOs of the main banks to meet him to discuss the current cashflow and liquidity position of the primary sector. He emphasised at those meetings that the banks should recognise the temporary nature of the current situation and that they should be flexible and put in place measures to support their farming customers. The banks replied that, while there are no signs that there is a liquidity issue across the sector as a whole, there may be pressure in individual cases. These banks have also assured him, and stated publicly, that they are monitoring the current situation and that they have alerted front-line staff to be supportive in any cases where difficulties arise. They have also stated that measures such as extended overdraft facilities and term loans will be made available to their customers.
The farming sector is very close to my heart and I know that all farmers understand that severe weather events come with the territory. However, I am strongly committed to supporting farmers in managing as much risk as possible. In addition, we will need to consider selecting risk management tools within a future CAP. I facilitated three CAP regional discussion meetings and in each instance where this was mooted as a provision under the next rural development programme, RDP, the general feedback was that farmers knew what they were getting from Pillar 1 and did not want anything taken from it. This may be revisited and we should take it on board. To date, such tools, which include mutual funds, insurance schemes and income stability tools, have been optional for member states to take up and Ireland, like some other member states, has not taken them up.
It is well known that Ireland has a natural competitive advantage in sustainable livestock production, particularly dairy, beef and sheep farming, based on a grass-based production system which is both relatively low-cost and carbon-efficient. Food Wise 2025, the shared strategy for the development of the sector, emphasises the opportunities to grow the value of farm output and value added and agrifood exports in response to growing demand, particularly from new markets. It emphasises, however, that this growth must be managed in an environmentally sustainable manner. Ireland is a world leader in sustainable food production and animal welfare. I have no doubt that this most recent challenge to the primary production sector will be one we will successfully overcome and that we will continue to meet our targets under Food Wise 2025. I agree, nevertheless, that the model on which it is based needs to be looked at and amended.
The desirability of Irish agrifood products in the most discerning of world markets was brought home to me this week when the Minister announced the opening of the Chinese market to Irish beef. The opening of this lucrative market presents an outstanding opportunity for the Irish beef sector, from farmers through to processors, in line with the market development theme of our Food Wise 2025 strategy. This decision by the Chinese authorities represents a powerful endorsement of Ireland’s superior standards by the Chinese Administration, for which food safety is a prerequisite for trade. The anticipated extra demand for beef will help our primary producers considerably and follow on from the success of our dairy sector in exports to China, where growth has been dramatic.Live exports also play an important role in stimulating price competition for domestic cattle and providing an alternative market for farmers. Last year, my Department reduced the veterinary inspection fee payable on live exports of calves under three months of age to €1.20 per animal from €4.80, which is one quarter of the previous price. This gave an important boost to trade and brought greater equity in the fees payable for calves, weanlings and adult cattle. Exports of calves rose by 20% to just over 100,000 in 2017 compared with 2016.
I emphasise these positive developments simply to highlight that despite the latest weather events, the overall story is extremely positive. There is huge potential for the growth of our exports to bring about buoyancy in the sector. I have every confidence that our robust farming sector will recover from this latest challenge. As we finally navigate our way to the other side of this really difficult period, it is an absolute priority to ensure that in future years we conserve enough fodder to deal with whatever winters come at us. Teagasc has been asked to make this a matter of priority throughout its advisory campaign in the months ahead. My Department will also continue to operate its early warning system whereby emergency assistance may be provided to farmers whose animals are experiencing serious welfare issues with which those farmers are unable to cope. I am confident that the actions outlined above will ensure that farmers can successfully plan more effectively for winters such as the one we have just witnessed.
To pay out the schemes, inspections are necessary. Bord Bia quality assurance inspections can be deferred quite easily. In other cases where there is an issue, farmers should contact their regional office to request some leeway. It is important that inspections continue, however, to allow payments to proceed at the end of the month for sheep and in mid-May for GLAS.
We must look at the whole model. I do not necessarily agree that we are overstocked. The nitrates directive and other environmental measures will ensure we are not overly stocked. If dairying is going to be the main driver, however, we have to look at a model which considers dry-stock and arable farmers as part of that whole industry and not as separate silos. In other words, if farmers are going to increase stock, they will have to make provision. I note that there are 365,000 more cattle since the last fodder shortage. The Teagasc advisory service will consider tweaking the model so that land on which milk can be produced is looked at in the context that not every winter will be 12 to 15 weeks. There is a saying where I come from that one should have enough hay until 10 May. It is slightly different. However, I did not follow that advice myself this year and actually sold some fodder earlier on. We have to look at the model. We have learned a salutary lesson that one can take nothing for granted when it comes to the weather. We must bear that in mind when we plan for the future. We can still meet all of the challenges with a proper land-use policy and joined-up thinking across all sectors.
I thank the Members for the debate. I note that in 1985 and 1986 we had two very difficult harvests and there were tragic stories. Combines got stuck and farmers took drastic measures. In May 1986, I had a large number of sheep and was buying nuts until the end of May to keep my lambs' mothers fed. There was no mention or expectation of support or schemes and one just had to get on with it. During those very challenging harvests in 1985 and 1986, even the quality of brewers' grain and milling wheat was undermined, in particular in the second year. We have been here before. I am not saying I disagree that there are climate change trends, but we should look at the long picture going back to learn how we should go forward. It is something we should bear in mind as we look not only at the last six or seven months, but also at the future.
I am glad to have the opportunity to conclude the debate. I thank Members across the House who have supported the motion. While I thank the Minister of State for his response, to say I am disappointed would be an understatement. In his statement, he rehashed the actions which have been taken by Government since last September. In essence, that is why we are here today. There is no mention in the statement of any future planning. While the Minister of State acknowledged that we can meet Food Harvest 2025 if there is correct planning, on which I agree with him, what planning is there? The Minister of State and the line Minister, Deputy Creed, are the go-to people in agriculture. It is their baby. It is the Department’s baby and they are at its head. All they say here, however, is that they acknowledge what has been done without acknowledging that it is what has been done since September that has got us to where we are. There is no indication or mention of acceptance of any of the proposals in our motion or of any other suggestion of their own to help people to get over this.
There is no future in history. I am a farmer myself and I remember the bad winters to which the Minister of State referred. While we got over 1973, 1985 and 1986, the resilience of farmers has been worn very thin at this stage and we are very close to a breaking point, if not at it, for many. It is bad form if the best answer of a Minister of State in a situation of crisis is to quote the resilience of farmers to say they will get through it. As I said at the committee, the Minister of State and the Minister are waiting for Joanna Donnelly and Jean Byrne to announce at 9.30 p.m. some night on RTÉ 1 that the crisis is over. That is what will happen. The weather will get us out of the crisis, but it will not get us beyond this and it will not form the plans for avoidance of the same situation into the future, not least into the winter of 2019, which we are already at the start of on the basis of the reasons I quoted in my opening address. We need leadership, but it is not forthcoming.
As has been said here, the farming community and farm enterprises in rural Ireland are its economic backbone. When farmers have no cash flow or money to spend, SMEs, shops and high streets in small towns and villages suffer. Given the situation in which the farming community finds itself, farmers do not have a red cent to spend on food for hungry animals and, in the circumstances, they are not going to be going to town. Everybody in the community suffers as a result. Nevertheless, the Minister of State provided no solution or plan for the future in his address. He provided no clue as to how we are going to help these people overcome the situation in which they find themselves to build for the future and avoid the same happening again. We are fire-fighting because we allowed ourselves to get into this situation. Prevention is far better than cure and I hoped the Minister of State would, if he was not accepting our motion, provide some answers as to what we can do to avoid getting into this situation again.
There is no future in history and while there is no future in blaming people for something which happened in the past, lessons must be learned going forward. We were here in 2013 too but, apparently, we learned nothing. From the Minister of State's response today, it looks like we have not learned anything from 2017-18 either.
Colm Burke, Paddy Burke, Ray Butler, Jerry Buttimer, Maria Byrne, Paudie Coffey, John Dolan, Frank Feighan, Maura Hopkins, Tim Lombard, Gabrielle McFadden, Michelle Mulherin, Kieran O'Donnell, John O'Mahony, Joe O'Reilly, Neale Richmond.
Victor Boyhan, Lorraine Clifford Lee, Paul Daly, Aidan Davitt, Paul Gavan, Terry Leyden, Pádraig MacLochlainn, Jennifer Murnane O'Connor, Pádraig Ó Céidigh, Brian Ó Domhnaill, Niall Ó Donnghaile, Fintan Warfield, Diarmuid Wilson.
Colm Burke, Paddy Burke, Ray Butler, Jerry Buttimer, Maria Byrne, Paudie Coffey, Martin Conway, John Dolan, Frank Feighan, Maura Hopkins, Tim Lombard, Gabrielle McFadden, Michelle Mulherin, Kieran O'Donnell, John O'Mahony, Joe O'Reilly, Neale Richmond.
Victor Boyhan, Lorraine Clifford Lee, Mark Daly, Paul Daly, Aidan Davitt, Paul Gavan, Terry Leyden, Pádraig MacLochlainn, Jennifer Murnane O'Connor, Pádraig Ó Céidigh, Brian Ó Domhnaill, Niall Ó Donnghaile, Fintan Warfield, Diarmuid Wilson.