Seanad debates

Thursday, 24 March 2022

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Agriculture Schemes

10:30 am

Photo of Gerry HorkanGerry Horkan (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy McConalogue, back to the House.

Photo of Garret AhearnGarret Ahearn (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Cathaoirleach; I think that is his official title for today anyway. I thank him for stepping up to make today possible. It is appreciated.

I thank the Minister for coming into the House. He is always very good. When anyone has a Commencement matter, as lead Minister, he always comes in and takes it..

As someone from a farm of tillage farmers, it is first important to note that we often feel as though we are forgotten farmers in the scheme of things. Dairy, beef, pig and sheep take much of the coverage but it is good to recognise the role that tillage farmers play in this country and the important impact they have.

It is important to recognise the scheme that was announced this week and the €12 million package, which is very significant, to prioritise the sector. That is really important. Of that €12 million, €10 million is for the new scheme that is being set up. The other €2 million is for schemes that are in place. There is approximately €1 million each for both those schemes, that is, greater aid for protein crops and the multispecies scheme. What was the uptake on those schemes previously? If more money is being put into them, is the uptake of those schemes so high that there a demand for it anyway? If an extra €1 million is being put into those schemes, does the Minister expect it to be drawn down? That question is just to see if it is worthwhile putting money into those schemes.

I have spoken to farmers in County Tipperary over the past number of days on this issue. There is a certain level of confusion about how the scheme will work and how tillage farmers will benefit from it. That is understandable because this is all being done very quickly on the back of what is happening in Ukraine.

However, most farmers who are even considering it say that when they take into account the rising costs in fuel, fertiliser and everything that goes with it, and if they have a contractor coming in to do the work, €400 per hectare will not be financially beneficial. It is more hassle than it is worth for people to do it, to be perfectly honest. That needs to be taken into account.

I have a number of questions regarding the scheme. When we talk about tillage farmers, is there a definition of "tillage farmers"? How many acres does a person have to have on his or her land to be classed as a tillage farmer to be able to apply for this scheme? Will there be a cap in terms of how much land a person can use for this?

There is a bit of confusion over someone leasing land they did not have last year but that was used for tillage and crops. Will that person be able to apply for this scheme? If, say, the Minister had 30 acres he was farming last year and then this year, he decided to lease it to me, it is still the same 30 acres that has crop on it. We are not actually gaining any crop. Is the new farmer who owns that land qualified for that? The argument he or she will make is that it is the same land and same crop but if it was not leased to that farmer, then that land might not have been used. It is a valid enough argument.In terms of what land people can use, in my area of Tipperary there is a limited amount of land set aside. Can wild bird cover be used? Do EU measures for land that has been set aside need to be relaxed so that it could be used to increase feed? The people I have been speaking to welcome the package and that tillage farming is being prioritised, but more information would be appreciated. I thank the Minister for coming to the House to deliver the response.

Photo of Charlie McConalogueCharlie McConalogue (Donegal, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Senator for putting the matter on the agenda. I join with him to utterly condemn the illegal invasion of Ukraine and impact that has on the people who are displaced and the unacceptable humanitarian situation that has evolved there. As a Government and as a people, we remain resolute in our solidarity and support for Ukraine and we reiterate the call on Russia to cease all hostilities immediately and to withdraw from Ukraine unconditionally.

At a time when tractors are in the fields, lambs are being born, cows and calves are heading for grass in Ireland, our farming brothers and sisters in Ukraine are taking up arms to fight for their country's freedom. The Government continues to monitor the ongoing situation caused by Russia's illegal and immoral war on Ukraine, and Ireland's co-ordinated humanitarian, economic and diplomatic response to the crisis.

As Minister, I have raised the challenge facing our farm families at national level and European level consistently in recent months. We have listened to farmers and we have acted to support them as best as possible. We all know that the crisis in Ukraine has had an impact on Irish agriculture and supply chains. Every sector is being impacted by the rising costs but farmers are especially feeling the pressure at present. The price of energy, animal feeds, fertiliser, fuel, silage plastics and other farm inputs have all increased. From a trip to the diesel pump or to the local store for fertiliser or feed, we are seeing the reality of the impact on supply chains. For many farmers, the energy cost has gone up by between 80% and 100% in the past year. We have a high reliance on imported feed with more than 60% of feed used on Irish farms imported. Approximately 30% of world wheat and maize exports originate from Russia and Ukraine. In the past year the price of key ingredients used to manufacture animal feed has doubled.

Then we have the challenge of fertiliser, which is particularly acute. As the Senator will be aware, all the chemical fertiliser used on Irish farms is imported and 20% of these imports originate in Russia. The cost of fertiliser for farmers has more than doubled this year compared to last year, and has increased further in recent weeks. Given the seriousness and urgency of the situation, I have put in place a rapid response team chaired by the Secretary General in my Department, Mr. Brendan Gleeson, to actively monitor the impacts on agrifood supply chains, to design appropriate mitigation measures and to contribute to the whole-of-government response to the crisis.

I also quickly established the national fodder and food security committee to examine how best to advise the sector to manage the disruptions. This committee, under the chairmanship of Mr. Mike Magan, is doing excellent work and I will continue to support it. Separately, and continuing with the necessity to act quickly to support farm families, I announced a €12 million package to support the growing of additional tillage and protein crops and to support the establishment of multispecies swards, as outlined by the Senator. These targeted measures will help build resilience against the expected impact of the situation in Ukraine. This three-pronged approach will contribute towards the expected deficit in tillage and protein crops. It will also assist farmers to deal with the challenges related to both the availability and price of animal feed and fertilisers. The total package is projected to cost just over €12 million, with €10 million for a tillage incentive scheme and €1.2 million to guarantee a payment of €400 per hectare for protein crops and an additional €1 million for a multispecies sward scheme. We are now finalising the finer details of the package of measures. We have a short window to make use of these important measures. I know all farmers have listened to the signals that, if they can plant more grains I will back them and support them. The €400 per hectare will be available for all additional areas planted this year. I also continue to engage with our European partners to respond in a comprehensive and flexible manner, using all of the tools at our disposal.

It is a period and challenge like no other in our lifetime. War has visited the Continent of Europe for the first time in more than two generations and it is having an impact on everyone in every aspect of their lives. We think about the people of Ukraine. We think about those who have been forced to either flee their homes or take up arms to defend their country. At home and on farms, I know our farm families stand in solidarity with their farming counterparts in Ukraine.

Photo of Garret AhearnGarret Ahearn (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister very much for his detailed response. I raised the matter of supporting farmers with the rising cost of fertiliser in recent months and he came to the House on that occasion to respond to it. We discussed the matter before Christmas. We have one party in government with us that will be in up in arms with this suggestion. Is there a way to support tillage farmers with the cost of fertiliser? If we are trying to increase the production of crops, being honest, the quickest way to do that is to add more fertiliser. Many farmers are reducing the volume of fertiliser they are using. I know that is what we want to do in the long run and I do not have a problem with that, but they are reducing the volume of they use because of cost.

If we are changing land from grass to growing crops, there is a potential risk that we will not have enough grassland for cows in future. What are we doing? Are we prepared for that in terms of having a plan in place? Farmers take risks. I am aware of a farmer in Tipperary at the moment who sees an opportunity to grow more grass as opposed to growing more crops, because there will be a shortage of silage in the future. Do we have a plan in place because that could be our next problem?

Photo of Charlie McConalogueCharlie McConalogue (Donegal, Fianna Fail)
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It is important that we plan. One of the pluses in the real challenges we face is the timing in that we are at the start of the growing season and the breeding season. It is important that at family farm level, each farmer plans for the year ahead and for next winter to make sure that while they are planning to breed, they are also planning to feed. It is important that such a balance is struck. First and foremost, it is important that farmers grow enough grass for the year ahead but also for the winter ahead, and examine whether they can make a contribution to grain security by growing additional grain. They must plan for that now. That is the reason we have acted quickly to put plans in place and to bring everyone together to meet the challenge and to do so collaboratively. It will take us all working together to do that. The payment of €400 per hectare will be on additional grain grown, whether it is grown by a tillage farmer or somebody who was not involved previously in tillage. The bottom line is that it is an extra hectare of grain, over and above what was produced last year. If farmers did not produce anything last year, and they grow a hectare this year, they will get paid for it. If they produced a certain volume last year and they grow more this year, they will be paid for the extra volume.

Teagasc has provided economics and advice. I saw last week in the Irish Farmers' Journal, Andy Doyle, its tillage expert was looking at the economics of tillage farmers planting as they did last year. Costs have gone up but the price of grain and forward price has also gone up. The estimation is that the economics of it are similar to what they were last year, which was a good year from a tillage point of view. I accept there is more uncertainty but the economics are that it makes sense and, as things stand, there will be a similar margin to last year for existing grain. I also accept there are additional costs in trying to identify additional land to grow additional grain. That is why I moved to try to help support that sector with the €400 per hectare. There is not a cap on it. The objective is to try to ensure we get the message out to farmers that they will be supported to grow extra grain. The payment will not be made on ground that was tilled for cereal last year because I do not want a situation whereby farmers are competing for tillage ground and where a farmer who is producing more than last year will get the €400 per hectare payment and might perhaps outbid a tillage farmer that tilled land last year. We want a scheme that works and delivers on the objective of growing the area under grain and supporting farmers to do that without having unintended consequences. That is the reason and rationale for that.