First, I wish the new Minister and his Ministers of State well in their difficult role in looking after the interests of Irish farmers. It is only fair to say at this stage that two of the Ministers of State with whom we worked for the past four years were at all times quite constructive, maybe a bit cynical at times but that is part of the role of the Opposition. We certainly did some very constructive work and had quite a few achievements, some of which can be forgotten very quickly.
I accept that this is our legislation. There are a few aspects of it on which I would like to comment. We should look very briefly at the whole ACOT-AFT scene in so far as value for money is concerned. Agriculture is changing rapidly. Hitherto we could look very placidly at operations such as dairying, beef production and so on and say: "We will go more and more into dairying, make more money and we do not have to worry very much about anything else." Had we taken some advice earlier on probably we would be much bigger in dairying than we are at present. We now have a totally new ball game in so far as we have peaked in dairying. There are limits to what we can do in beef and, in fact, there are limitations right across the board.
When we look at the dilemma of young farmers at the moment in not being able to get sugar beet contracts we realise the real limitations of Irish agriculture and the role ACOT have to play in this new changing scene. With the reorganisation of ACOT much has happened. It took a long time and possibly the right thing was not done. I said and I repeat in this House that Mark Clinton's original idea whereby the two organisations would have been blended into one was probably the best option of all. There would not be the sort of duplication that exists with regard to research and putting research theories into practice. We must live now with ACOT and AFT working closely together and endeavouring to improve the lot of farmers.
The idea of a general practitioner type of ACOT adviser we had in the past is no longer acceptable. ACOT have recognised this and have now come up with some of the answers. They now have specialists in beef production, dairying and tillage. Slowly but surely these specialists are being accepted by farmers. The green CERT course is very popular. It is nice to think that these courses are now linked with some of our EC benefits. Farm accession is linked to the green CERT course and any tax concessions that are available from the Government are also linked to competence in farming. That is only as it should be. People should not get these benefits too lightly.
With the tough competition we have not merely among ourselves but also from overseas, we need to be tops at our job. There is no point in saying the job is easy or that we have a better climate than anybody else. It galls me at times when I read that it is so easy for us to produce all sorts of things that we are not producing especially with regard to horticulture. We have a fairly unfavourable climate for a wide range of horticultural crops. We have a fairly inclement climate. No one knows better than those of us who have grown these crops unsuccessfully during the years that we do not have that much on our side. With an enlarged Community, with Spain now in the Community and with the Mediterranean climate which they have, we now have more and more competition to contend with.
ACOT would need to be much more aggressive in the marketing scene. It is not good enough any more to tell farmers we will help them to produce X, Y and Z ACOT will have to get involved in the marketplace. There is very little point in producing frozen peas, French beans or any other crop if there is no market for them. That is the big difficulty we are experiencing all the time. It certainly has been a problem for me and for my predecessors and that problem still exists. Whether we like it or not the Irish housewife is not over-concerned about where the frozen foods or the vegetables come from; she is concerned about quality and about price. In many areas we have upped our quality over the past number of years. The quality of our vegetables has improved considerably. Everybody, especially people in this House, can take a bow on that. In 1982 when I became Minister of State there was almost a civil war when Irish farmers dumped Dutch potatoes into the sea. At least now we have ordered marketing and we have the national potato co-operative, admittedly a struggling co-operative. We have for the first time, with the co-operation of ACOT, a register of potato growers and we can keep tabs on these people. We can compliment ACOT on having helped with this registration.
Incidentially, we cannot boast too much, because many people have not registered. If farmers are to be charged for services they will be looking for and be entitled to a better service. They will be more critical and the service will need to be much improved. Some experienced farmers will be in need of expert advice and will be expecting to get a much better service. I can see a great involvement for ACOT right through to the market place.
I should like to see ACOT becoming involved in producer goods. In the last couple of years we have succeeded in getting producer groups going in horticulture and potatoes, not before time. These groups are still small and centred in Dublin, Meath and Louth, but they are moving down to the south east and Cork. However, they are not getting the support they deserve. ACOT must rally around these producer groups, to help them get their products into the shops and supermarkets. Regretfully, quite a number of our trading people are not one bit concerned about where the food comes from. The tendency is to have a telex machine and perhaps a small office staff with the aim of getting the container load or whatever from the cheapest place possible. I keep saying that it is not the Dutch who are responsible; it is Irish people who are bringing the goods over. Irish traders, some of them prominent, have not the commitment. Some have the audacity to bring in vegetables in bulk and put them in their own bags, giving the impression that these are Irish potatoes and other Irish vegetables.
The Minister of State mentioned an Bord Glas. When this board unfolds, I shall be very constructive in my approach to it. The weak link is getting the produce into the shops and the stores. That market is being controlled by people who to a large extent do not mind very much where the food comes from. After much difficulty and a great deal of help from the ACOT advisers, we succeeded in reformulating both Midleton and Mallow Foods. We got a processing operation, admittedly a very lean operation going. It was very tightly funded. We got 2,000 acres of crops growing and created a little employment, but unfortunately at this moment almost the entire produce of last year's crop is sitting in a cold store, costing about £1 per pallet per day. At the same time, Irish merchants are flooding our shops with foreign produce. There is no point in blaming the Dutch, the Danes or anybody else. The blame lies with Irish merchants who have no interest in promoting Irish goods. Very few shops are supplying Midleton packaged foods. That is the real role of ACOT with the farming organisations, with those who have already set up these horticultural co-operatives, to make no apologies for bringing Irish foodstuffs into our shops and supermarkets. We can offer first class goods at the right price. If we are to charge farmers for services, that is the sort of service they will be looking for.
I am sure many Members on both sides of the House have had the same experience as I have, that farmers are no longer prepared to take the same sort of risk with new crops that they might have taken ten years ago. The reason is that they have to budget much more carefully than in the past because they are living in a tough scenario. Their input costs are still relatively high and they must be sure, first that they will be paid and, secondly, that they will get an adequate return for what they produce. Whether it be parsely, frozen peas, cauliflower or one of the more labour intensive crops, the growers must know what their profit margins will be like. The role of ACOT and AFT is vital, because these people must cost out for the farmers the entire programme, the cost of the crop, the likely yields, the varieties of seed that they should be growing. They must be able to point out that through the IFA controlled produce groups the farmers will be able to sell their crops. One of our toughest difficulties is trying to dispose of what we produce.
The dairy people with quotas are happy enough and those in efficient beef production are reasonably satisfied, but for the younger farmers and those not fortunate enough to have these very substantial quotas and contracts it will be a very tough scene, although not an impossible one. In the past we succeeded well in exporting much produce to the United Kingdom. The beginning has been made in some areas, for example with mushrooms which were highly successful. There is great scope in that market for quite a range of products. We have already attempted with some success to bring some produce into the ethnic Irish populations in Manchester, Birmingham and Coventry. Success will come about only if we have a first class advisory service. Farmers will respond reasonably favourably to a change. Quite a number are now paying quite substantial sums to private advisory companies which have been set up around the country. They are getting the necessary specialised advice. The challenge is there for ACOT. They have been highly successful in my own area and that success is growing in the Dublin area on the horticultural side. Their improved services are very much in demand.
Originally on Second Stage we talked about farmers who could afford to pay. I hope it would be the Minister's intention that advice would still be available to farmers who could not pay for it. I should like that clause to be put back. I was adamant at the time that that clause should be included in the relevant legislation. I had a reason for so ensuring. I do not think any farmer should be regarded as a lesser citizen if for one reason or another he is unable to afford to pay for such a service. Indeed, a formula was worked out at the time as to how such a scheme could be devised.
ACOT have served the Irish farming community well over the years. In my area there was only one adviser covering the whole of east Cork. He got to know all the local farmers and generated much enthusiasm. I had hoped that the revitalised ACOT would regenerate that enthusiasm but that does not seem to have been happening. I should like to see advisers going out among farmers somewhat more, getting to know them better. Those advisers now have substantial office accommodation and are inclined perhaps to remain there hoping that farmers will come to them. I should prefer to see them putting on their wellingtons again, getting out to farms, having discussions with farmers, seeing for themselves at first hand what is taking place. From the point of view of weather, we have experienced two of the worst years in living memory. The chances of our experiencing another bad year are about a million to one so, hopefully, we can look forward to better weather this year.
Some of our markets have stabilised but there are many challenges ahead. There is an element of the unknown about such challenges. For example, there is now the question of rabbit production, something at which people might have smirked a couple of years ago had one mentioned the subject. It is now big business in the United Kingdom and in France. A few people here have moved into that production. Many more would do so if there were sufficient advice available about that whole production scene. It is an area of production in which ACOT and others would need to update their thinking.
With regard to new projects, there appears to be a vacuum between production and marketing. In the future we need to get farmers, their advisers people like the IDA and CTT together so as to ensure that from the farmer/ACOT point of view and from the point of view of AFT we can produce competitively. Then the IDA and CTT would be able to say: we believe you can sell your product, these are the types of customers that exist, these are the prices they can afford to pay. At present that type of liaison appears to be missing in any new proposal. Such proposals come forward so quickly now we must be prepared for them. For instance, one area in which we are experiencing difficulty in getting moving is that of soft cheeses. For a number of years now AFT and ACOT have been conducting a number of projects on farmhouse cheeses which has led to the production of very good Camembert, Brie and that type of cheese around the country. The snag is that marketing costs are astronomical. It should be remembered that we still import approximately £12 million worth of these cheeses. These could be produced here but there is a need to involve the larger co-operatives who would handle their marketing. ACOT, with the help of the co-operatives, would need to work out a formula to ensure a satisfactory marketing policy.
We introduced this Bill. We envisage an ever-increasing, sophisticated farming scene, with that type of expertise and advice I have mentioned being readily available. It is not longer a case of an ACOT adviser advising farmers on the amounts of fertilisers they should use on their farms. All of that is old hat; farmers know exactly how much to use and when to use such fertilisers. The advice now needed is: how will a farmer work out financially at the end of the day if he goes down that road. That is much more difficult advice to give. It is very easy to say to a farmer: if you do X, Y and Z you will get three tonnes but there is no point in getting three tonnes if he loses at the end of the day. The type of advice now needed is much more sophisticated. It must be better researched and this will need increasing numbers of specialists on the part of ACOT. Indeed, people are to be commended on endeavouring to devise ways and means of putting that advice into practice.
In fairness it should be said that the county committees of agriculture have been constructive in their suggestions. The Department worked closely with them over the past four years. They had mixed views about charging. There is the fear that if a charge is introduced people will not avail of the service. Experience has proved the contrary. For example, all farmers in Normandy are charged for services, a flat rate of approximately £90 to £100 to join the club, be they big or small. One is not charged according to one's valuation or acreage. One is charged approximately £90 to £100 and for that one receives good advice. Indeed, one is entitled to seek a particular adviser or type of advice. There is no hassle about it. Where such charge has been levied it has been shown to work. At the end of the day the farmer will feel that he has the right to criticise an adviser if the advice does not prove to be correct. I would hope that ACOT would strengthen their activities in the future. It is my wish that, with the aid of this House, we would help them to look after the interest of our farmers.