The wet weather put a dent in the attendance figure for the opening day of the National Ploughing Championships, with 66,250 people visiting the event at Ratheniska, Co Laois on Tuesday, down from last year’s first-day figure of 91,200.
Attendees, who included President Michael D Higgins and a scattering of politicians, had to contended with mucky and waterlogged walkways. Minister for Agriculture Charlie McConalogue had the additional challenge of being confronted by farmers demanding answers on the future of cattle farmed on land that would be hit by changes to the nitrates derogation.
During a press engagement he held on the site of the championship in Ratheniska, Co Laois, one Co Cork farmer demanded Mr McConalogue provide answers about what would happen to the “40,000 or 50,000 cows that are surplus to requirements” after the changes.
Insisting Ireland got a good deal under the circumstances, given other countries had lower nitrates limits, Mr McConalogue said the European Commission have been “crystal clear” that there is “absolutely no prospect and that they will not be reopening the derogation process or facilitating an amendment process to that”.
Separately, Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said her party in government would “create a real and genuine partnership with farming”.
Ms McDonald was asked about a recent opinion poll by the Irish Farmer’s Journal which placed the party’s support on just 12 per cent, significantly below its national figure where it is generally polling above 30 per cent.
“We are very conscious that we have a lot of work to do,” she said. “Polls come and polls go, but what remains is the reality that for us to convince people to give us a chance at the next election we’re going to have to work very, very hard and that means engagement with farmers, with rural communities.”
Ms McDonald said there was a “real sense” among farmers at the ploughing that “they’re not being listened to, they’re not being engaged with properly”.
Asked about reports that a house owned by Sinn Féin, which was left to it in the will of William Hampton, who left millions in his will to the party, was lying vacant, Ms McDonald said that houses should not be left derelict. “We have a housing crisis, so the objective is for that house to be taken in hand, and ideally for someone to live in it,” she said.
Challenging Mr McConalogue on the nitrates derogation, John O’Brien, vice chair of the Barryroe Cooperative farming group said: “You need to get fighting, and your officials need to get fighting.”
He said Ireland needed to retain its derogation which permits the use of up to 250kg of organic nitrogen per hectare on eligible farms. This limit will be lowered to 220kg following a decision by the European Commission due to a decline in Irish water quality.
“We’re a dairy, food producing country, we’re feeding a lot of the world,” Mr O’Brien said from the crowd watching Mr McConalogue address journalists. “There’s a serious moral issue with the 40,000-50,000 cows that were impregnated last February and March, and don’t tell me people knew then [about changes to the directive], they didn’t.
“What are you proposing – and what you haven’t fought for and what your officials didn’t fight for at European level is going to make jack s**t difference to water quality.”
In response, Mr McConalogue said the 220kg limit was “very painful” but the situation would be even more grave if the limit was 170kg, like in 24 other member states. He said farmers would be pointed toward advisory services and advised them to look at exporting slurry to other farms.
“The bottom line is it’ll be individual to each farm but the advisory services, both independent and particularly in terms of Teagasc will be working closely with them,” he said.
Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment Simon Coveney was also quizzed on the issue at the championships, saying Ireland’s nitrates derogation rates must reflect differences between the country’s “farm structure” and farming elsewhere in Europe.
Mr Coveney also dismissed any threat to the Fine Gael vote from a farmer’s alliance movement driven by rural independent TDs, ahead of the next general election.
“I think the nitrates issue is a good example of why political parties are important. Independents that are looking to get votes from farmers don’t have much say over issues like negotiations with the European Commission, in a way that a political party like Fine Gael does.
“I’d like to think that Fine Gael’s record in the that context is very, very strong... This is a party that was born out of rural Ireland in many ways.
“We will work hard and be honest with farmers, in terms of what’s possible and what’s not.”
Mr Coveney stood by the decision made by the Government in 2015 to scrap milk quotas, despite the potential knock-on effect increased herd sizes might have on the environment. The dairy industry was “operating in a straitjacket” before milk quotas were scrapped, he said.
“A lot of young people had no interest in taking over their family farms because they couldn’t grow. They couldn’t expand. They couldn’t fulfil the potential of their farms, and so the abolition of dairy quotas was the right thing to do.
Mr Coveney said that in making the decision to scrap quotas, there was an understanding among farmers of their “obligation” to the environment.
“All farmers have an obligation towards the environment, towards ecosystems, towards wildlife, towards water quality, and farmers know and understand that,” he said.
Earlier, Irish Farmers’ Association president Tim Cullinan had said he believed European environment commissioner Virginijus Sinkevičius would “relook” at the derogation requirements for Irish farmers.
Speaking from the National Ploughing Championships on RTÉ Radio’s Morning Ireland, Mr Cullinan said he had met the commissioner in Brussels on Monday. “The commissioner was alarmed and shocked when I explained to him the consequences of the derogation, as well as the importance of the derogation to Irish farmers.
“So he is very concerned and he is awaiting the request from our Taoiseach to come to Ireland.”
An Environmental Protection Agency report last June said levels of polluting nitrogen and phosphorus in Irish watercourses arising from human activities such as farming and forestry have risen to unacceptably high levels.
Farmers said following the failure to get extension to the derogation, when the current period expires in January 2026, some of them will be obliged to cull their herds, a move that would make their operations less viable.
Mr McConalogue said he too had invited Mr Sinkevičius to visit Ireland as had the Taoiseach and Mr Cullinan. However, the Minister said that the Taoiseach had been very clear in his public comments on the issue of derogation. “The Commission have indicated that there is no renegotiation of that, the Taoiseach has said that publicly...
“It was a very difficult renegotiation whereby the Commission were actually looking to reduce it even further than what we ended up with...
“We’ve a big challenge on our hands now in terms of keeping this derogation. And that challenge is based on making sure that we improve water quality over the next couple of years.”
Speaking as the first day of the championships wrapped up, Anna May McHugh, managing director of the National Ploughing Association, said inclement weather conditions made for a “challenging day” for organisers and thanked patrons for their patience and support. Day two was eagerly anticipated “with much better weather due”, she added.