Seanad debates

Tuesday, 16 April 2024

1:00 pm

Photo of Pat CaseyPat Casey (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister to the House.

Photo of Charlie McConalogueCharlie McConalogue (Donegal, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Acting Chairperson and Seanadóirí for scheduling these statements today. It is important that we discuss this as it is an acute issue and it has been a very difficult time for farmers in all sectors and all parts of the country.As we know, it has been an exceptionally long winter. Going back as far as the ploughing championships last year in early September, the rain was soaking the ground and there has not really been any relief since that. Indeed, it was challenging before that. It led to a very early start to the winter with animals in many cases going into the houses and starting to eat fodder from September onwards. Of course, we are now in mid-April and those animals are still being housed, working off fodder and all the stress that goes along with that.

It was an especially challenging autumn last year but it has also been an unprecedentedly challenging spring for our tillage sector. Very few crops have been planted yet and we are now at 16 April. That has not happened certainly in my recent memory. It poses a very significant challenge for the tillage sector. It is stressful and very difficult at farm level. It can really get in on people because farming, certainly nowadays, can be solitary. If a farmer is waiting to get out to plough fields and the rain keeps pouring down, that can be a quite difficult and stressful situation for a farmer. If a farmer's animals are still inside, with all the pressures that goes with that in terms of fodder, slurry, minding the animals and going out in the morning and an animal is sick and such, that is very stressful and difficult. First and foremost, the onus is on farmers, and all of us, to work and support one another at this time and to look out and share their challenges and issues. I would say to people it is important to reach out and provide support to those around you as well.

It is also particularly important that we, as Government, do all we can, as much as we can, to support the sector through times such as this, too. As Minister, I have been very cognisant of that and I have been working with my Government colleagues in terms of monitoring what has been happening in the country and responding to the challenges as they have evolved.

Recently, I have been working closely with the national fodder and feed security committee under the chairmanship of Mike Magan, with all of the farm leadership and representatives on it, and with Teagasc, led by Frank O'Mara, to assess the situation as we have gone through the winter into the spring, especially in recent weeks because the winter and housed period has become very long indeed. I acknowledge the work they have done and the leadership they have shown, particularly the leadership Mike Magan has shown as chairperson. The committee has been meeting regularly and, up to its most recent meeting, which was this day last week, its assessment is that there is, thankfully, sufficient fodder stocks in the country. Some farms are running out of fodder, however, or do not have it and are under pressure. Some parts of the country are under more pressure and have a bigger shortage than others, but thankfully, there is enough fodder in the country despite the fact we have had an unprecedentedly long winter period and such.

I have stepped in take to take a few measures to support farmers through this. First, I stopped all inspections, except those absolutely essential for completing payments to farmers, until 22 April. I tasked Teagasc with providing the support at local level to farmers in linking those who still have a supply with those who are experiencing a shortage. I have asked the agency to put together a fodder register and to put helplines in place. Thankfully, so far, in the most recent update as of a couple of days ago regarding the number of calls coming into Teagasc, there have been twice as many offers of silage, extra hay and fodder than there has been requests for them. There are twice as many calls coming in with offers as there are requests for help. It is reassuring the fodder is there so far. Obviously, it depends how long it goes on. We are here today and the sun is shining outside, which is the first time we have seen a bit of sun in a long time. It is hoped the forecast will be better for the week ahead. We hope the weather will change and will pick up on the positive side because growth has been good. Unlike previous challenges where there have been fodder shortages, there is grass in most fields.There is, therefore, a better supply of grass than there would have been, for example, in 2018 or 2013 when there was not a blade of grass on the ground until the middle of May because it was so cold and farmers had to wait for it to grow. At least on this occasion, if the ground does dry out - and that is not in our gift - there will be more of a supply for stock once the fields are traffickable. In the meantime, it is our job to support farmers through this.

As Minister, I have always had a fear that we would be in a situation where we would not have enough fodder, particularly in light of the illegal Russian invasion of Ukraine and the supply challenges this has created. The impact on fertiliser costs was something I was very conscious of. I did not want farmers to cut it short or take a chance on not buying fertiliser or not growing enough fodder and then being caught short by a long winter. That is why I ran the fodder scheme last year, which provided €56 million for farmers to grow up to 25 acres of fodder - silage or hay - on each farm. That paid up to €1,000 to each family farm across the country to support them in making sure that fodder stocks were kept as strong as possible. There was a really strong response from farmers to that. Some 67,000 farmers across the country applied for the scheme. Thankfully, this has meant that despite the fact we have had an exceptionally long winter, we have enough fodder in the country. It is now a matter of making sure those who do not have it can get it from those who still have a supply. I am confident that we will be able to see this period out with enough fodder in the country.

The tillage sector is facing particular challenges. I am very conscious of this. I am also conscious that every day that passes without farmers being able to sow crops adds risk in relation to the growing and harvest seasons. It will bring us into a later harvest. It will also bring increased risk in relation to an impact on yields. I know confidence is low and stress levels are high in relation to tillage farms at the moment.

That is why, at the Fianna Fáil Ard-Fheis at the weekend, I gave the clear commitment to the tillage sector that I would deliver over the course of this year. I am making the commitment that I will deliver €100 per hectare to all farmers who put seed in the soil for the 2024 harvest season. This means that farmers who planted winter crops last year - a challenging planting season - and those who put seed in the soil this spring for cereals or field vegetables, will receive €100 per hectare. I will work assessing the existing budget I have and I will also look to find ways to deliver that finance over the coming months. This €100 per hectare will give tillage farmers the confidence at this point to go ahead and plant and make sure that we harvest. This is a massively important sector and I want to make sure that we keep as much ground in the sector as possible. I also want to makes sure that we work with the sector to grow it towards the 400,000 ha target we have set for it. This is very achievable if we can support the sector through this difficult time.

In the last couple of days I have received the report from farmers and representatives who I brought together into the Food Vision tillage group to advise me on how we can seek to grow the sector. I will be reflecting on this report and the various considerations in relation to it. In the immediate short term, it is really important that we support farmers to have more confidence to go ahead and plant so that €100 per hectare is going to be an important support and commitment from the Government.

I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach for the opportunity for all of us to come together today to assess where we are at. I now look forward to the Senators' contributions and to responding to any issues raised.

Photo of Paul DalyPaul Daly (Fianna Fail)
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Gabhaim buíochas leis an Leas-Chathaoirleach. I welcome the Minister. The topic of today's debate is statements on agriculture which is a very broad church. It is such a vast sector with so many integral sectors within it. The Minister's speech has highlighted that the key topic at the moment is the weather and the issues pertaining to the prolonged spell of wet weather we have had since almost the start of July last year. I compliment the Minister. It is unusual in this Chamber – it is nearly a first for me – for a Minister to stand up and speak for eight minutes ad lib, not from notes, and speak so comprehensively and factually on the matters at hand. It certainly portrays the fact he is on his brief that he is able to come the House and address the issues so comprehensively ad lib, without referring to notes.

Going back to the start, this debate will most likely be dominated by the current crisis, which is the weather, climate and the spell of rain we have had ongoing since 1 July last year. I welcome the tillage support scheme of €100 per hectare. It was important the Minister clarified today that the €100 per hectare is applicable to crops harvested in 2024 because I had been getting questions from people who got some of their winter crop planted and the very few who have some spring seed in the ground on whether they were going to miss out on it. I welcome that clarification.

The Minister gave an exemption to the crop diversification element of GAEC 7, which was also important. I ask him to keep his finger on the pulse from the tillage sector point of view. We will talk about the extended housing of animals from the livestock sector and whether those animals would have been in sheds all winter anyway. The weather is only beginning to affect them now and they are having to push out their house period. The tillage people were caught at the harvest end last year. They lost out and missed out on a lot of sowing of their winter crops and they still have not got up and running on their spring crops. Of all sectors, it is the one that has been affected since the weather broke. With the greatest respect to the dairy and livestock sides, it is only now they are going out to grass. They would have been wintering their animals anyway. Unfortunately, the tillage people got hammered at the tail end of last season and the beginning of this season. I would like the Minister to keep his finger on the pulse on that. While the €100 per hectare is welcome in the long run, it may not be enough and he may have to revisit it. They genuinely have been very badly hit.

I welcome the fact the Minister paused all non-essential inspections. However, in that regard I request that he might contact his colleague, the Minister, Deputy O’Brien, and correlate with respect to county council inspections. Some councils have rowed in behind the Minister’s decision and have suspended all unnecessary inspections while others are carrying on. It is causing a small bit of confusion as to whether councils will or will not do so. As the intention of the pausing is for mental health reasons for the farmers, who are under enough pressure without having an inspection, it just does not make sense that the Department is standing back for that reason but the same farmers can still have inspections from local authority inspectors. If it could be correlated between the two Departments that the councils would take the same attitude as the Department, that would be appreciated.

I will move on to fodder. I welcome the fodder transport scheme. A number of people have been on to me. Straw is very scarce now. Straw is being imported from the UK as we speak. We have, for all the right reasons, and I welcomed it at the time, the straw incorporation scheme, but I have people on to me about the irony of us incorporating or chopping up our own straw in the harvest time and now importing straw from the UK. The comparison has been made with when we stopped harvesting peat for environmental reasons but found ourselves, on the other hand, importing it from eastern Europe. With regard to the climate and environment, which is the lesser of two evils? Perhaps depending on how the season evolves, the Minister might look at that straw incorporation if there is still a shortage of straw going into next winter, which there most likely will be because most reserves have been used up. I was asked to raise that with the Minister.

I ask the Minister to monitor the situation as closely as he can and keep his finger on the pulse. As he rightly said in his speech, we look out the window today and the sun is shining. However, a couple of fine days will not solve the problems.I witnessed similar situations previously in the course of what is now getting to be my long lifetime in agriculture. When water levels are so high and the soil and ground so wet, a very brief dry spell, especially in April when there are still harsh winds, can cause the soil to dry from the top down. The ground can become very dry on top in the space of a couple of weeks. It can look like the problem is solved and we are out the gap on this one, but it will only be dry and crusty on top, which will inhibit growth. It is possible there will be no growth because the water is still underneath. The fields will look dry after a dry, sunny harsh week or two but a tractor will sink in them. The ground will dry from the top down. That can be an even bigger problem. It could lead to a shortage of silage and grass, compound the issues going forward and leave us at square minus one before next winter even arrives. There is a need to keep an eye on that. I would not be singing and dancing just because we get a couple of fine days. We need the April showers. Beggars cannot be choosers and we will take the fine days but a prolonged period of even a week of dry, harsh weather can cause its own problems going forward.

I welcome the Minister's exemption to the 15% crude protein requirement. However, I query the terms and conditions which will make it necessary for a FAS adviser or a nutritionist to sign off on it. We are trying to eliminate bureaucracy. Will the Minister bring in an exemption across the board, to 1 May or whenever, rather than putting more bureaucracy, red tape and work on farmers by requiring them to go to a nutritionist or FAS adviser?

To move on to other areas, the derogation will always be top of the list, and probably would have been so today if it was not for the weather. I will not go into it in great detail. I have no doubt my colleague from west Cork will cover it in more detail. We had a good meeting with the CEO of Tirlán Farm Life at the weekend. Its River Slaney catchment area approach is a model in we could encourage more farming co-ops, related industries and people in the sector other than farmers themselves to get involved in the context of trying to improve water quality. We all have a vested interest in this, not just farmers. Tirlán is leading in this regard. What it has done on the River Slaney project is a model that should and could be used by more. At the end of the day, we as a nation, not just the farming community, will lose if we lose our derogation. The farming community will be the hardest hit but it will also hit the overall economy of this country in which agriculture is the largest indigenous industry. It is vitally important that we get a handle on water quality and can hold our derogation. Everybody who can play a part in that needs to be encouraged along. I compliment Tirlán and hope that more people can row in with similar projects.

I had a conversation with the Minister previously about the reference costs in targeted agriculture modernisation schemes, TAMS. We see the need now more than ever for additional slurry storage, with the extended housing period. I genuinely believe the gap between the Department's reference costs and the actual building costs is such that it is inhibiting some people from developing and carrying on projects, even those that have been approved for the grant. I discussed this previously with the Minister. I again plead with him to expedite the review of the estimated Department costs and to try to bridge the gap between those costs and the actual costs.

My final point, which I raised with the Minister previously, relates to the area of live exports, new EU proposals and the proposed changes involving the reduction of journey times and the increase of space allowances. We are an island nation. We are talking about a fodder crisis. If all the mouths that have been exported were on the island, we would have a very serious fodder crisis at the moment. We would not be able to handle our dairy calf sector. The market for store cattle has almost collapsed because there is no grass. If we were not exporting weanlings, where would that market be? It is the same with finished cattle. We need to get special treatment on this. Being cognisant of the ongoing importance of animal welfare, I do not want any of the conditions under which animals travel to be reduced.While I am cognisant of the animal welfare issues, the fact that ours is an island nation must be taken into consideration. We need to be able to access to the Common Market like every other country. If the changes that are being proposed are introduced, they will result in a worse hit for our agriculture sector than a loss of the derogation.

Photo of Rónán MullenRónán Mullen (Independent)
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Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. I do not intend to take up the full ten minutes allocated to me. There are just a few issues that I want to raise with the Minister. He has already addressed several of the matters I had hoped to raise.

I do not know if the Minister has had a chance, in this House or elsewhere, to acknowledge the very tragic passing of Paddy Dunican, the manager of Kilbeggan racecourse. It is appropriate that I raise this matter here in the presence of Senator Daly as well. I am sure the Minister, given his brief, came across Paddy at some stage. Paddy was a consummate professional; a very pleasant individual to know and to work with. He did many good things for charities along the way, but, above all, he was synonymous with Kilbeggan Races. He worked enormously hard to promote the brand of Kilbeggan Races. Obviously, the very tragic circumstances of his passing are known. Our sympathies go to his family and all of this friends. His death is a timely reminder to us all.

I do not think I am telling any secrets here, and the Minister will have seen the article in last weekend's edition of the Sunday Independent. The tragic situation which unfortunately enveloped Paddy was connected with professional challenges and seems also to have been in some way connected to his interactions with the racing authorities. I do not intend to say anything controversial, other than to ask whether it would be timely for us to consider the pressures that can come on those who organise and run small racecourses in particular. It is often the case in life these days, with the increasing complexity of things, that smaller organisations can suffer. We see that in medical practices, solicitor's practices and so on. At the same time, it is undoubtedly the case that our smaller racecourses contribute something vital and irreplaceable to the life of the nation. Having regard to the tragic events that took place, I wonder if it would be timely for some consideration to be given at official level to the particular challenges that smaller racecourses and those who work in them face. Perhaps there are issues to be addressed by Horse Racing Ireland and the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board and a need to stand back and look at how things operate there. Are there things that could be done better so as to ensure that there is a fair shot for everybody, for the larger racecourses and organisations as well as the smaller organisations and racetracks? I do not think I am making any inappropriate linkage when I say that maybe we could take this tragedy and use it as a time for reflection or further examination. I just wanted to bring that up because I knew Paddy and liked him. He was pleasant to deal with. He had been in touch with me and other Senators and Deputies in the Houses in recent years about issues that were relevant to Kilbeggan and other small racecourses. His passing is a great loss. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.

There is some connection here with what we have been talking about in the context of the weather crisis. I heard the Minister during the Commencement debate earlier referring to our seven-month winter. Green grass is lovely to see but when farmers cannot put their cattle or sheep out in the green grass, it is tormenting to see. I was struck by a very good piece in The Journal in recent days which contained feedback from farmers. There were stories like those we are all hearing, including that of the woman who was fighting to keep 13 new lambs alive because the driving rain would kill them if she put them into the wrong field. The piece outlined the upset that farmers feel when they cannot put their cattle out and are worried about fodder. The Minister says there is enough fodder, but there may be issues and challenges in individual cases. Another issue is the inability to put out slurry and the mounting quantities of it on farms.I am close to this situation myself and I know it is a very upsetting time for farmers.

The Minister's written speech referred to the On Feirm Ground programme, which equips people in regular contact with farmers to look out for and spot the signs of farmers who might be struggling and to signpost them to appropriate supports. I welcome that as a very good thing, but could more be done? Very often, those who most need help are the least likely to seek it. Sometimes those who might benefit from assistance could do with knowing more about what is there to help them in the event of mental health or other challenges arising from the particular challenges of the moment, in agriculture in particular. Could more be done in terms of an advertising campaign? Is there a helpline, for example? I know there is a Bord Bia helpline for people with regard to inspections and so on. Could we fill out the jigsaw with something more that could be of benefit to farmers at this very challenging time?

I note that the level of rainfall in March was almost one and a half times the average rate in previous years. It is hard to know sometimes what the weather patterns are telling us, but this is beyond dispute. I heard the president of the Agricultural Consultants Association, Michael Ryan, draw attention to how farmers, in particular, are being affected by the changing weather. I am not telling the Minister anything he does not know. I note the sympathy and support from the Government in the form of various schemes and the decision to hold back on inspections to the degree that is appropriate to deal with this unusual situation. I encourage the Minister to continue to do all he is doing and more. I ask whether something more could be achieved in bringing awareness to farmers of the supports that are available if needed.

I would also like to ask about the state of play regarding a new veterinary hospital and training centre. I understand that the Minister and the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy O'Donovan, intend to make a joint application under the national development plan. Proposals have been made. The HEA has assessed that there would be capacity for 90 student places at UL; for 40 student places at the Atlantic Technological University in Mountbellew; and for 40 student places at the South East Technological University. Where does the Minister see this going, and how soon? According to a statistic I read, just 80 of approximately 300 people who signed onto the veterinary register had been trained in Ireland. What would the Minister consider to be the appropriate ratio in terms of new vets coming on stream? What would he consider to be ideal? There is no doubt that there are benefits to studying abroad but where does the Minister want this to go in terms of the number of extra veterinary student places? Is 80 to 100 places considered to be desirable? I understand there were 581 applications for 85 undergraduate places in 2022 so clearly the sector is underserved.

In particular, there seems to be a problem around getting access to vets for large animal practice. It is good news that some of these professions have become more gender inclusive in recent years but that can lead to knock-on challenges, certainly in the view of some vets and farmers. How are the various desirable objectives - getting greater gender balance into the profession while at the same time ensuring there is not a shortage of vets who can take on large animal practice, in particular - being achieved? I do not know if the Minister is hearing what I hear anecdotally, which is that there can be a flight away from large animal practice to small animal practice. That presumably creates an imbalance in the system that is not helpful. I would welcome the Minister's thoughts, comments and perhaps even corrections on that.

Finally, when I last met the Minister, I raised the question of consultation on the proposed ban on electronic collars for training dogs. I was grateful that at that time the Minister agreed to extend the consultation period.Where are we at with that? Is the fruit of that consultation in? I said at the time that it would be important to consult with vets, scientists, dog owners and all the various stakeholders, including animal welfare people. I believe there is a way to use these devices in a controlled way that is appropriate, leads to the most humane outcomes and prevents the need to slaughter dogs where they attack sheep and so on. The Minister may have different views on that. We are both coming from a sincere place on it but I would like to ask the Minister where things are at and what are the Government's plans in respect of that issue.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo of Annie HoeyAnnie Hoey (Labour)
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I welcome the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, to the House. As someone who grew up on a tillage farm and dabbled in the agriculture sector, I will keep my comments mostly to those areas I am familiar with. I certainly welcome the Minister's comments and his outline supports for tillage farmers. Once a tillage farming girl, always a tillage farming girl. Over recent months I have found myself peering out the window daily and muttering about planting weather and wet sodden land. I must have picked it up off my dad over the years when he used to do that. As a little girl I would stand beside him and nod along and go, "Yes, most certainly."

It has been incredibly difficult. As I have been going across the country I am struck by and cannot get over how often I see wet farm lands in a way that I do not recall seeing over the recent years. It has been incredibly difficult. I welcome the extensive outline supports the Minister has put forward today and which he told us about.

Agriculture is an incredibly broad sector, and during statements I am aware we could talk about completely different things and not cover absolutely everything. I will talk a little bit about the diversification of Ireland's agriculture and farming. I want to reflect on those farmers in the north-western German state of Lower Saxony who are being supported in their transition away from pig farming as the country seeks to make its agricultural sector more diversified and more sustainable. The agriculture investment promotion programme, AFP, accepts funding applications from farmers seeking to support this business. The new rules mean pig farmers who reduce their pig herds or quit pig farming altogether have preferential access to funding. This is just one of the examples. There are many different programmes around examining different ways farmers can look at a just transition, particularly for livestock farmers. In these Houses and in other parliaments across the world, there are conversations about lower meat diets and more plant-based processes and diets for people. We must recognise this as an essential step in addressing climate change. We can look at some of the different ways we can do this in Ireland to support some of these things.

The German Government also marked €42 million in its 2024 budget for promotion of plant-based, precision fermented, and cell cultivated proteins. In providing such a crucial sum for a plant-based transformation, the German Government is demonstrating how important sustainability is for the future. I believe it is becoming more commonplace among European countries to invest in and promote plant-based options. I would love to see Ireland starting to follow suit in how we are incentivising some of that. In October last year, the Danish Government published the first ever national plant-based action plan with a strategy on how the Nordic country can transition towards a richer plant-based food diet and boost plant-based protein production in the next few years. Denmark is at the forefront of plant-based policymaking. Between 2017 and 2022, Denmark witnessed a twofold increase in protein-rich plant crop production, generating an economic value of €1.2 billion.

Europe's plant-based food sector has grown significantly in recent years, with total sales value and unit sales spiking by 21% between 2020 and 2022 and the sector currently valued at €5.8 billion. The future for this looks even more promising, with a predicted annual growth rate of nearly 9% for the next five years. Moreover, by 2035, one in every ten servings of meat, eggs dairy and seafood worldwide is expected to be in the form of alternative protein. ProVeg conducted an EU consumer survey of 7,500 people in ten EU countries and found that the data suggests a broad and ongoing shift in Europe towards more plant-based eating. European habits on the whole remain unsustainable and multifaceted and a strategy is needed to further accelerate this shift.This could include emphasising the long-term benefits of different diet types, tailoring messages for diverse groups and regions and implementing transparent and trustworthy labelling schemes.

We cannot talk about food production, horticulture and agriculture without talking about food security. We must recognise that there is a decline in some small- and medium-sized farms. This is a concerning trend. Ireland is obviously very much an agriculture-based country. As someone who grew up on a very small farm, I do not like seeing farmers being pushed out of the sector due to financial constraints or because it is unsustainable. I recognise the really important part agriculture has played in of our history, but approximately 80% of CAP subsidies go to the largest 20% of farms. This policy favours large-scale industrial farming practices. As a result, smaller farmers who do farm in harmony with nature are still struggling and are often forced to close down their businesses. This threatens food sovereignty and food security. I would love to see a way for us to address this imbalance. CAP subsidies could be reformed to properly support smaller farmers and diversity in rural economies. The CAP has the potential to steer food systems towards addressing environmental issues, including climate change, biodiversity loss, disturbed nitrogen and phosphorous cycles and water and land degradation. Redesigning CAP policies to help support sustainable diets and farming practices is urgent as current subsidies do not do that. They incentivise the acquisition of physical access related to animal agriculture such as milking machines, which perpetuates what is going on. I do not know if we would do it in this room or at European level but I would love, in the context of CAP reform, someone to look at both supporting smaller farmers and increased diversification in how we farm.

As we work towards just and sustainable food systems, we need to consider justice from all angles. This obviously includes farmers because it is they who provide our food. The financial situation has deteriorated due to the wet weather, which has played havoc across the sector. Grain and fertiliser prices rose as a result of the outbreak of war in Ukraine. We still have some of the residual impacts of the coronavirus pandemic. There is no doubt that on a political and cultural level, farmers feel under attack as a result of some policies that favour cheap imported food over home production and from a society that underpays and undervalues them. We have already heard about the difficulties farmers find themselves in and the mental health struggles they face. I have found myself talking to not just older farmers but also to those across the sector about the difficulties they experience and the impact of this on their mental health. We need to implement policies that increase homegrown produce and move away from trade deals that just facilitate the importation of cheap food. It is important that we listen to farmers, not just corporations.

I will briefly discuss regenerative farming, which is a transformative approach to agriculture that prioritises soil health, biodiversity and sustainability. I was about to say that Ireland has a favourable climate, although the past year might not necessarily be reflective of that, but, in theory, our climate should support regenerative farming practices that focus on restoring and enhancing the national ecosystem. The health of regenerative farming in Ireland or part of it is an emphasis on soil health so by implementing techniques such as overcropping, crop rotation and minimal tillage, farmers aim to improve soil structure, fertility and microbial activity. Healthy soil is the foundation of a successful farm because it provides essential nutrients for plant growth and resilience against pests and diseases. Water conservation is another key aspect of regenerative farming. We have frequent rainfall as was alluded to here today. Irish farmers have the opportunity to capture and store water through practices like mulching, contour ploughing and agroforestry. By managing water effectively, farmers can reduce erosion, improve water quality and enhance the overall health of the land.

We could look at some EU policies that have improved matters across the Continent. The EU has invested nearly €500 million in plant-based start-up companies. We do not have major investment here in any plant-based companies. It would be great to see this. Aligning diet to guidelines on health and environmental sustainability, as has happened in Denmark, is another measure we could take. Other initiatives would involve: moving subsidies to sustainable healthy food production; paying farmers to convert their land to ecosystems for carbon capture and storage, as has happened in the Netherlands; investing in plant-based research such as the Smart Protein programme in UCC, which has done some research on plant-based protein crops in Europe, including Ireland; establishing a default veg approach in catering for schools, hospitals, etc.; and eliminating tax on food products aligned with environmental and health value.I am going to briefly touch on hare coursing because it is an issue that is very important and we have raised it a couple of times in this House. We recognise the cruelty associated with hare coursing and I encourage the Minister, as it falls within his remit, to recognise hare coursing for the barbaric bloodsport it is. We need to look into banning it.

I wish to follow up on a commitment the Minister's Department to investigate pig farming practices. About six weeks ago a spokesperson for the Department said it:

.... takes any allegations of breaches of animal welfare regulations extremely seriously. In relation to the alleged breaches of the pig welfare requirements raised by Animal Rebellion Ireland and The National Animal Rights Association in their recent press release, we will investigate these following receipt of any evidence ...

Has the Minister's Department begun that investigation? Is there a plan to do that? Will he provide an update on that?

There are loads of other areas I could touch on, including the human rights infractions for workers in the meat sector. When we are talking about a just transition, we not to talk not only about farmers in the sector but about all workers in the sector. We still need to look into the conditions of workers in the meat industry.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo of Eugene MurphyEugene Murphy (Fianna Fail)
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We have some people in the Public Gallery from Limerick, agus Dún na nGall - is as Dún na nGall an tAire - agus Contae na Mí. Cuirim fáilte rompu go léir. We hope they enjoy their visit to Leinster House and, particularly, to Seanad Éireann. They look quite happy and are smiling so that looks good.

Photo of Joe O'ReillyJoe O'Reilly (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the wonderful people from Limerick. In a few moments they will be able to hear their illustrious Senator Maria Byrne speaking. They should wait for that as loyal Limerick people.

I welcome the Minister. I acknowledge his proactivity in all these areas, how close to the farming community he is and how committed to all this. In a moment of great intergovernmental solidarity, Senator Lombard conceded the Minister is not responsible for the bad weather and I am prepared to go with the Senator on that. That is a huge concession to intergovernmental solidarity. I also congratulate Senator Lombard on one of the best speeches delivered in this House for a long time in terms of content, passion and understanding of the issues.

The Minister said this has been a shocking, long, depressing period of rain, and it has. It has depressed all of us, but particularly the farming community. The Minister was right in identifying the isolated nature of farming sometimes. This needs to be homed in on. The Minister should have a consultation with Teagasc; its director, Frank O'Mara, who has a very good feel for these things; and all the staff to see if something can be done in this sphere.

I am delighted my two local co-operatives, Tirlán and Lakeland Dairies, have paid a hardship bonus on the March milk cheques and I hope other co-ops will follow.

I acknowledge my good neighbour and friend, former chair of the environmental committee of IFA nationally, Thomas Cooney, for the many good conversations I have had with him on this issue and potential solutions to it. He is very committed to the good in this area.

I wanted to acknowledge my local co-ops and say it was great they paid the bonus in March but that needs to go on being paid. The banks need to support farmers in this situation. I would appreciate if the Minister could confirm he is constantly liaising with the banks on this. Flexibility will be needed and surely it is in the interests of the banks themselves. Co-ops will have to be understanding in terms of credit rating.One sector is giving assistance to farmers, namely, small shops and small merchants, which are rooted in the community and give a bit of credit and forbearance to farmers in these circumstances. Will the Minister examine with his civil servants whether something by way of rates remission or otherwise could be done to assist small agri-merchants, who are so supportive of farmers? Could they at least liaise with them to see whether something could be done?

On outstanding moneys due to farmers, I am not au faitwith all the detail here but I gather there are still some. Any money owed to farmers at the moment should be paid as a priority. I do not think the Minister disputes that but I ask him to ensure, through his civil servants, that that is happening.

Inspections are on hold this month, with a moratorium to 20 April. We all pray the Minister is correct about the weather and we want to believe the long-term forecast is accurate, but there is a strong case for extending the moratorium beyond 20 April. I appeal to him to examine a short extension of that moratorium. It is not to create a bad situation but to give people a break in the context of everything we have discussed, such as mental health and money.

Francie Gorman, the president of the IFA, put it well when he said tillage farmers in this country collectively constitute the same number as the populations of Cashel and Midleton. Imagine if the populations of Cashel and Midleton were hit with a crisis. We would all be in uproar. The tillage sector needs support. I acknowledge the €100 per hectare, or €40 per acre, the Minister has provided for. That is good and it is a sign he is proactive. Nevertheless, like colleagues, I have to urge him to go back to Cabinet on this. There is a case for the figure to be increased, so I call on him to increase that figure. That is a great need out there. What is at issue was so graphically described by my party colleague Senator Lombard, and I ask the Minister please to look at it.

TAMS payments need to be expedited. TAMS are so important in the context of agricultural infrastructure, looking after animals, slurry spreading, transport and so on. If we could expedite the payment of TAMS, that would be very helpful.

Given the brevity, I devoted my contribution to some practical suggestions rather than to a graphic description of the weather, of which we are tragically aware.

Photo of Erin McGreehanErin McGreehan (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister. It is always important and welcome to have statements on agriculture. We all want to shine a light on those we are meeting day in, day out. We are living it and we are hearing from farming families from throughout our constituencies about how hard it is. We can see it. We are fairly miserable here when the rain is pouring down around us, and we have to be cognisant that that is farming families' shop floor.

I acknowledge the Minister's work for farmers in the Cooley Peninsula after the desperate flooding last October. His departmental officials conducted an initial survey to examine the extent of the damage, and I am very grateful for the considerations that are ongoing in the Department. There are restraints, such as the sourcing of funding along with the state aid rules, and I look forward to hearing further updates from the Minister in the coming weeks. I know he understands it. He witnessed it a couple of years ago on the Inishowen Peninsula, where there was very similar land damage, so he knows how hard that is for farming families. That was last October, and here we are again talking about continuous bad weather. Unpredictable weather patterns have caused such a desperate time for many reasons and people have had to watch their income being washed away.There is a problem with the high cost of production. People are looking at the cost of things and at their margins getting tighter and tighter and being overlapped in so many ways. As the Minister knows, the ground has never been so wet. You can hardly walk on some of the land now, never mind put machinery or cattle on it.

I very much welcome the Minister's announcement on the fodder transport support measure, which I hope will alleviate some of the pressure on farmers. There have been delays in getting tractors onto land and delays in the growth of the grass - everything is delayed. My fear is that the fodder crisis and the lack of fodder being produced for next year will compound the problem. I hope that we can have a fodder scheme like the one we had last year.

I thank the Minister for the national sheep welfare scheme that was announced last week. That extra €8 per ewe cannot be underestimated and it has been greatly welcomed. But, and there is always a “but” when it comes to farming, we know that €8 has been whittled away by production costs so, while it is welcome, it is really going forward to stand still.

There is an issue that I want to highlight with regard to the sheep sector, particularly for hill farmers on my home turf in the Cooley Mountains, and I am sure it is no different in Donegal and elsewhere. Some 25% of extra meal has already been used this winter, and the winter is not over yet. There are welfare issues for farmers and for stock. I suggest that the Government look at the possibility of intervening with some sort of subvention in the near future, for example, a meal voucher or direct support to keep farmers able to support their animals with meal. This would help sheep and suckler farmers who are experiencing serious problems, especially in the hill areas. As the Minister knows, lambing is in full swing and major problems are being experienced because sheep farmers are lambing in extreme conditions. I have never witnessed such bad weather. There are issues with meal and there are more lamb deaths than normal because of that. Animals are out and they might be getting caught in rivers or hedges; they are running away to get shelter and they are getting caught in different places. It is not for the lack of someone looking after them, it is just that accidents are happening. In addition, lambs are not being born alive in many instances and while there are always deaths, the number is higher this year.

We have not seen the land so wet or conditions so trying for a long time. The Minister spoke very well earlier on the Commencement matter raised by Senator Robbie Gallagher and he said he understands that things are very difficult for farmers. I look forward to hearing from him about how we move forward to raise morale and support farming families. They are the backbone of the country.

Photo of Maria ByrneMaria Byrne (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister for coming to the House to discuss this all-important issue. We have all been in contact with farmers in our own localities with regard to the issues facing them over quite a while. Even on my way up to Dublin today, the rain was sporadic and was coming and going. It is certainly not helping the mental health of farmers and people working on their farms.

I want to raise a number of issues. The fact of potato shortages affects retailers, a point referred to by Senator O'Reilly. I was in a small retail shop across the road from my house the other day. They usually have a selection of five or six different types of potato but they were limited in what they had the other day because they just could not get them. They are afraid they are going to run out of potatoes. Small farmers often produce potatoes in places like Wexford and Dungarvan.The retailer goes and collects them in order that his customers can have an offering. There is a fear factor for the small business person going forward because we have had so much rainfall and people have not been able to sow either malting barley and wheat. On many farms, about 40% of grain is sowed on rented land. Farmers have the added pressure at the moment of paying rent at a time when they cannot use that land. This is playing on the mental health of farmers, as is the fact that slurry spreading has been delayed. The stress factor facing farmers, their employees and families is a major issue. If a farmer is down, everyone feels it, especially the family living at home with him.

I welcome the fact that the Minister brought back the national fodder and food security committee, which certainly worked very well during Covid. The Minister had people from different categories and backgrounds in the agriculture sector coming together to share ideas and support one another but also to highlight where they saw shortages and signal where people needed support. It is important to keep that committee going, particularly as we had very high rainfall last year. There has been continuous rain every since. There has been no let-up. While we had some dry weather in between and people were in good form, it is very important that the committee be kept going on a permanent basis. From speaking to individual members of the committee and organisation that were represented on it and had an input into it, I know they felt it was beneficial to be able to talk to one another and to have access to the Minister and his officials. The Minister of State and others fed into the process as well.

I also welcome the exemption relating to the 15% crude protein requirement. I am concerned about the paper trail. Farmers are trying to do what they can. If the Minister could cut back on the amount of red tape and paperwork involved, it would really be of benefit.

There is one final point I would like to raise. There was much talk six or eight months ago about veterinary colleges around Ireland. Collaboration took place between the Departments of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science. The University of Limerick was one of the places that was selected and considered for the establishment of a veterinary college. From speaking to farmers, I understand there is a shortage of vets. What is the status of that application, and what is going to happen? We need to progress this issue. We must keep vets at home and have them train in Ireland. There are many vets in small and larger practices. It is important to have them train in Ireland because there is collaboration between the education sector, farmers and farm organisations in order that vets get the training and work experience they need. I would like to see matter relating to veterinary colleges being progressed, particularly in view of what I have heard from farmers about the shortage of vets and being able to gain access to them.

Photo of Timmy DooleyTimmy Dooley (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister for coming to the House to discuss this important matter. This is a debate I have been seeking for some time. I thank him for his level of engagement with us. Quite frankly, however, engagement is not enough. There is a sense of despair across the farming sector of a kind that I have not seen for a long time. The bad weather is the straw that broke the camel's back. That is notwithstanding the fact that prices in the marketplace have remained relatively strong for milk, beef and, to a lesser extent, grain.

Over a period, a cascade of issues have been undermining confidence in the principles and practices of farming. A perceived green agenda is upsetting farmers, particularly as some of it is poorly explained on occasion. Farmers feel that they are at the bottom of the ladder. They are working hard to stand still. Costs are increasing across all sectors, but some seem to suggest that because the market price for products in general has held relatively strong, farming is going well. In truth, it is not. That is because of rising costs.

I interacted with the Minister on the situation in County Clare. A considerable number of farmers in east Clare who signed up to the hen harrier scheme lost a significant amount of money when it was integrated into the ACRES programme.. Between €4,000 and €6,000 to a small farmer in such an area is a huge hit to take. It impacts on all aspects of the family and puts people under pressure to educate their kids, and get them to college in order to give them a better chance. It is the same with farmers in the Burren. I met with the Minister's officials on a number of occasions. They tried to explain it away and said it would be fine and that it would balance out. I would like those officials to sit down now with the farmers who were told that this would balance out for them. Another hit in the Burren area to the value of €5,000 or €6,000 per farmer is real money. It is a large percentage of a relatively small income. That is just two examples in the county. Of course there are issues that are outside the Department's control - nobody is going to blame the Minister or the Department for the weather - but there needs to be a greater level of engagement.

I know farmers who cannot get straw at the moment. The scheme the Minister brought in is very welcome because it helps to move fodder around. It provides a fairly decent degree of financial contribution to move fodder from one part of the country to the other, but what about those who are looking for straw who cannot get it? Straw will have to be imported. It is easy enough to say to a big dairy person that he should get straw from outside the country at his own cost, but for the smaller people it is an intolerable burden.

If we take it in the round, we need to have a much better level of engagement with the farming sector. In the past, the Minister did a very successful round of visits to meet farmers in regions. I would like him to consider doing that again because it helps. I know it is a big burden on his schedule, but it does help to show the farming community that the Government cares. I know the Government cares. I know the Minister cares. I know the farming background he comes from and I know he understands small, marginal farming, part-time farming and tillage. He also understands the bigger enterprises and the spectrum involved in farming. There is negativity out there from some in the cities who seek to put all the burden of responsibility for climate change on the backs of the farmers, and who believe that farmers have been doing extraordinarily well in recent years, which the Minister and I know is not the case because of the increasing costs.

Meeting farmers would show that the Minister, the Department and the Government cares. I appeal to the Minister to visit farmers. I would like him to start in County Clare, where he has an open invitation because of the schemes I talked about and the issues with grain, which affect the county to a lesser extent. We have a very strong suckler herd. The farmers in that sector are under enormous pressure. The dairy farmers we have are also under enormous pressure. The situation is replicated throughout the country. I appeal to the Minister to do as much as he can from a Government perspective and to put funding in place. I ask him to look again at the schemes relating to both the hen harrier and the Burren that were previously in place and to try and get some level of compensation back to those farmers, because the current scheme is not working for them. I also urge him to engage, insofar as he can on a face-to-face basis, with farmers through regional meetings. The Minister meets with the representative bodies every week. It would be very complementary to that if his level of engagement superseded that of previous Ministers. If possible, farmers would like to see him at some kind of regional forums.

Photo of Seán KyneSeán Kyne (Fine Gael)
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The Minister is very welcome. I thank him for the measures he has put in place in recent weeks in this unprecedented period.The national fodder and food security committee is very important. It needs to be ingrained in farmers that they can plan for an average year, but if they have an average year, therefore, they have years that are not average. There are years that are quite good, with an early spring and a late autumn or late winter, which is great, but where there is a year at the other extreme, with an early winter and a late spring, as we have seen, that leads to the problems we are experiencing in many parts of the country now. Fodder security needs to be looked at every year and it needs to be ingrained in farmers in terms of ensuring they do not just plan or hope for an early spring every year.

It varies in different parts of the country. In my part of the world, mid-April is the average for stock to be let out, but there are areas where dairy farmers traditionally have stock out by day in February or out by day and night by St. Patrick's Day, which happens in parts of Cork and the south east, as Senators Lombard and Cummins would be used to. That is a different story. In Connemara, we are often jealous of the big dairy farmers but we would not be jealous these days, with the thought of the 150 or 300 cows a farmer might have in certain parts of the country going out for just a few hours, issues with slurry tanks filling up and concerns about damage to paddocks, having enough fodder and getting next year’s fodder in, never mind this year’s.

It is unprecedented. Others have rightly spoken about the impact it is having on certain parts of the country, particularly for dairy and tillage farmers. I acknowledge the work the Minister has done with regard to the fodder and food security committee and the fodder transport support measures. I note from his opening statement that farmers in the south east are seeking fodder rather than selling it, which paints the picture. The west is not as badly hit because we are more used to the longer winters.

It is obvious there is a national obsession with weather but what I have heard from talking to farmers in the last period is the following statement, namely, the climate is changing. That does not mean they have gone green or that they are now members of the Green Party, but they understand there is something afoot and something is changing here and they acknowledge that. That is the first step. It does not mean they are all to blame or that Ireland itself, on its own, is to blame, because it is part of a bigger worldwide picture, but it is gradually becoming ingrained in people that there is something happening.

We have had unprecedented rain but we could be back here in six weeks’ time with an ongoing drought and no end in sight to that either. Unfortunately, this is what we are facing and we have to plan for it. We have to plan for fodder reserves and we have to ensure we plan for the non-average year and for things that can go awry, whether it be floods, drought or capacity for slurry storage. People have criticised farming by calendar, and I can understand that. It is important to match slurry applications to soil temperatures and grass growth, and that is the best approach, but given the situation we have had, where there is a gap of a couple of weeks in January, I think leeway should be given in certain circumstances because, as I said, we just cannot plan for the years we have had.

My final point revolves around slurry and the trafficability of land when there are continuous applications of slurry on the same areas of land. This is leading to issues of trafficability in that the land becomes not as trafficable and more easily damaged, which is something to note in regard to management and farmers' infrastructure.

All in all, it has been an unprecedented time for farmers. It will stop raining, as we know, and it is important that farmers engage and reach out where they are having problems. As I said, there are brighter days ahead and it is to be hoped we will get over this in the very near future.

Photo of John CumminsJohn Cummins (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister to the Chamber. I echo many of the comments of my colleagues, such as Senator Kyne, in welcoming many of the measures which have been taken heretofore. It has been unprecedented to have had seven months of rain. Farmers are worn out, and there is no question about that. There are still cows in all day and all night in many parts of the country when we all know they should have been out by St. Patrick's Day, so it really has been an exceptional strain on farm families throughout the country, especially in my own area of Waterford. Perhaps we can do more in terms of supporting farmers with some form of helpline or support just to talk about those stresses and strains and to give an outlet. Obviously, they talk to one another in their groups, in the marts and across a cup of tea or coffee, but there needs to be something more than that so they can seriously talk about the issues they are facing.

Tied to that is the inspection regime, which some of my colleagues have referenced. I welcome the fact the Bord Bia inspection has been pushed out but more needs to be done in terms of local authority inspections and Department inspections. My background is in education. I compare what happens in a whole-school inspection to what happens on a farm. In a whole-school inspection, the school is notified that an independent inspector will be coming to the school the following week. If there are issues and items identified during the course of that inspection, the school is given an opportunity to address those issues. That is not the case with farm inspections. Farmers are not given an opportunity to correct even minor errors and, instead, are penalised, with a percentage of their basic payments withheld. A more proactive, helpful and conciliatory approach to the inspections would be welcomed by the entire farming sector, and perhaps it is something the Minister can take away. There is a precedent for that within the education sector.

The issues of storage were referenced by Senator Kyne. While I can understand it, there is a catch-22 with regard to the regulations whereby those who do not have sufficient storage do not qualify for TAMS and those who have sufficient storage qualify. We need to be more innovative in how we address that issue because it has been one of the primary issues raised with me by the IFA on the ground in Waterford. I met the IFA representatives only last month when they were in City Hall and they had a demonstration. Storage was a key point. We need to think outside the box in terms of how we address that issue, although that would be done in line with the existing regulations. I am not saying it is easy but there are inventive ways we can address items. It sometimes takes that lateral thinking outside the box.

I commend the measures that have been taken but we need to do a lot more. I know the Minister and the Minister of State, Deputy Heydon, are committed to that. Collectively, we can have a co-operative approach with farm families throughout the country. That antagonistic manner of inspections which can happen is not helpful, particularly at this time of year and given the challenges that are being faced.I again thank the Minister for being in the House. I look forward to the further measures we can bring forward collectively as a Government.

Photo of Eugene MurphyEugene Murphy (Fianna Fail)
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I will not say much before I hand over to the Aire, as I am in the Chair, other than to endorse the comments of many Senators. However, something that has been very important to date, which the Minister has shown previously, is the way he engages with people, not alone the farming organisations but sometimes individual farmers, who are probably in a distressed state or situation. That is very important. I welcome the fact he has been trying to tidy up areas of moneys from which people can be paid. The transport scheme is important in this regard, as was mentioned.

Will the Minister look at the case of some small farmers along the River Shannon who are outside the Callows flood scheme? Although I welcome that scheme, very small farmers are now in a little difficulty with regard to fodder. Maybe he will look at that scheme again to see if we can do something for them. People might be able to share fodder with them or whatever. I will give the Minister the names of those individuals.

On Lough Funshinagh, let everybody spare a thought for those who were flooded out because of the actions and whims of Friends of the Irish Environment, which blocked the emergency work. That is another story, but those people are in desperate straits at present. The Government is engaging with the Attorney General on that, but I ask the Minister to do everything he can to help those people. I will hand over to him to finish the debate.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo of Eugene MurphyEugene Murphy (Fianna Fail)
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Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire, na Seanadóirí, na huiséirí agus na hoifigigh. Is é seo an deireadh leis an díospóireacht.

On a more sombre note, as Senator Mullen and the Minister referred to, in my radio days I had many a conversation with the late Paddy Dunican at the racecourse in Kilbeggan and on the radio. I am really saddened by his departure from this life. As others have done, I extend my sympathies to his family at this really sad time for them.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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I congratulate our colleague and friend Senator Lorraine Clifford-Lee on her election as the president of the advisory group on health at the Interparliamentary Union Assembly and on her wonderful report at the most recent conference in Geneva. We thank her for the great work she is doing. I congratulate the Senator on behalf of all in the Oireachtas. Míle buíochas agus beir bua.

Photo of Lorraine Clifford-LeeLorraine Clifford-Lee (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Cathaoirleach.