Tillage farm income crisis needs Government plan, committee told

Growers struggling to complete grain harvest due to poor weather conditions, IFA says

A deepening income crisis for tillage farmers, devastated by low prices for a fifth year in a row and poor weather, requires a Government-backed plan, an Oireachtas committee has been told

Irish Farmers' Association president Joe Healy said a failure to develop and implement a plan in a prompt and meaningful fashion would accelerate the decline of crop production. He said it would further reduce biodiversity and "threaten the potential to expand our livestock sector and world-renowned drinks industry".

Growers were struggling to complete this year’s grain harvest due to poor weather conditions, he told the Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture .

“We are now in the fifth consecutive year of low grain prices and the forecast is for high world carry-over stocks along with intense competition from the Baltics/Black Sea...this means the outlook for a change in this price trend is not positive.”

The prospect of another year of low grain prices would see many growers struggle to cover their production costs, Mr Healy said.

National policy must instil confidence in growers showing that Government is serious about revitalising the tillage sector, he added. “Otherwise, an increased reliance on grain and non-grain feed ingredient imports will undermine the provenance of the Irish food brand.”

Worth sowing crops

Fianna Fáil spokesman on agriculture Charlie McConalogue said a 20 per cent decline in Irish cereal acreage over the past 10 years was going to be "difficult to reverse in current conditions".

Many farmers, including large growers, were considering whether it was worth sowing crops for 2018 such is the crisis, said IFA grain committee chairman Liam Dunne. One estimate was a 1 million ton decline in grain output this year, and a serious loss of straw was inevitable.

With Ireland so reliant on cereal imports for animal feed, it left the country exposed. “Poor quality grains from the UK are being put straight onto boats and sent to Ireland,” he added.

Irish Grain Growers (IGG) secretary Clive Carter said over 1 million tons of animal feed was being imported into Ireland. The Irish climate ensured some of consistently highest cereal yields in the world, and farmers could fulfil such a requirement with the right conditions.

Craft beer sector

There was a growing demand for premium food grade crops for use in the beverage industry and export food market – with rapid expansion of the Irish whiskey and craft beer sectors – but farmers needed a fair price if they were to grow more. “It is impossible to try to produce these premium products while competing with imported GM feed,” he added.

Irish Grain Growers' chairman Bobby Miller said getting rid of tillage would soon see Ireland facing a big bill for carbon emissions, when crops could be a highly effective "carbon sink" to counter climate change.

The current review of EU nitrates regulations was an opportunity to address poor soil fertility on Irish farms, which if left unchecked would limit Irish agriculture’s ability to reach its growth targets, Mr Healy said.

Low farm incomes and heavy regulatory activities had contributed to a reduction in fertiliser use and a decline in soil fertility levels in recent years, he said. Just 10 per cent of grassland soil samples and 12 per cent of tillage samples showed good fertility, while there was a requirement for lime on most farms.

He added: “The current review of the rules surrounding the use and management of nitrogen and phosphorous on Irish farms provided an opportunity to reverse decades of declining soil fertility levels and ensure Ireland’s farming sector was well positioned to sustainably grow agri-food exports over the next decade to almost €20 billion and create 23,000 jobs in the sector.”

Fertiliser spreading

The inflexibility of “the calendar farming regime” when it comes to fertiliser spreading was at the front of farmers’ minds again this year, with farm families particularly in the west and north-west struggling to farm the land due to the exceptionally-bad weather this year. More flexibility must be shown to ensure farmers who want to do the right thing are not penalised, he said.

The farming community was well positioned to continue to play its part in Ireland’s recovery, Mr Healy said. “However, vital policy support to deliver sustainable growth is required across all sections of Government and it is time to ensure that this [nitrates]review plays its part.”