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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 14 Oct 1998

Vol. 495 No. 2

Adjournment Debate. - Fodder Crisis.

Many farmers in west Limerick are in danger of losing their livelihoods if there is no intervention to alleviate the crisis brought on by the disastrous summer. Will the Minister immediately introduce measures to alleviate the crisis in a large area of west Limerick? In this area only 58 per cent of the fodder required has been harvested and 11 per cent of farmers surveyed by the IFA have less than 30 per cent of their fodder harvested.

The extent of the crisis can no longer be ignored. The excellent survey conducted by the IFA exposes in stark detail the terrible situation being experienced by farmers in Athea, Glin, Shanagolden, Ballyhahill, Ardagh, Newcastle West, Templeglantine, Tournafulla, Mount Collins and Abbeyfeale. The land in this area is very wet, cattle have been indoors for as long as two months, and farmers have been unable to sell those cattle because of the prices. There are also difficulties in other areas of the county which must be addressed.

The crisis forced farmers to graze 31 per cent of silage fields from which silage is not now available. Thirteen per cent of farmers were forced to use winter fodder prematurely. All farmers stated that the quality of the fodder saved is poor. There has been a fall-off of 10 per cent in milk yields, and 18 per cent of farmers were forced to destock as a result of the bad weather. Thirty-nine per cent of those surveyed had not sourced winter feed. The estimated drop in the income of farmers in the area for 1998 is 26 per cent. The drastic situation needs urgent action and ministerial intervention.

A multi-faceted approach is necessary to enable affected farmers to survive. This must involve the Department of Agriculture and Food, the co-operatives, banks, the Revenue Commissioners and community services. I fully endorse the following proposals which have been made by the Irish Farmers' Association: the immediate payment of headage to include a once-off increase; REPS payments to be made immediately without inspections; a reduction in the retention period for suckler cow and beef premia so that farmers who are forced to destock before the end of the period will not lose premia; the cost of feed and fertiliser to be reduced — the cost of nitrogen has increased by between £10 and £20 in recent weeks; improved credit terms from the co-operatives and dairies; banks to give special credit terms to farmers who are finding it difficult to make repayments — the Minister should open negotiation with the banks on this issue immediately; superlevy bills to be deferred by dairies for at least 12 months — the Minister should raise this issue with the dairies; dairies to refund penalties made where work was not carried out under the dairy hygiene regulations.

The £10 million which has been proposed for the farmers will be useless. It will be worth roughly £400 to each affected farmer and will buy only 20 round bales of silage. How does the Minister of State propose to distribute the £10 million? We have not seen any proposal yet as to how this will be distributed.

The freefall in cattle prices this week is nothing short of frightening, but the freefall of the Government inaction is a disgrace. Some animals are worth £250 less than a year ago, with some values falling by £170 per head since last June. The Minister's answer is to get 592 tonnes of meat into intervention over the next fortnight, which is equivalent to 1,800 cattle, when 40,000 cattle will be offered for sale in the same period. Even more frightening is the fact that some farmers put cattle through the mart ring yesterday and did not get a realistic bid.

I agree with Deputy Connaughton's statement, which he could not make in the Dáil yesterday, that the initial enthusiasm for the much sought after live cattle trade to Libya has now turned to deep seated anger as farmers have not been told by the Minister why there is a hold up, or if this market will reopen in the near future.

What is the exact position with the Iranian market? The Minister should intervene on the basis of the IFA survey and its proposals to alleviate the situation in County Limerick.

I am pleased to reply to this motion and I thank Deputy Neville for raising such an important issue. I fully accept that significant hardship will be created on many individual farms in the areas most adversely affected by weather conditions. I do not need to labour the point on the weather situation this summer and the persistent rainfall. In the peaty and heavy clay soil areas of certain counties, the capability of farmers to make adequate silage and hay was greatly reduced. While the situation improved significantly in many areas in August, and while the two week dry spell in September was very important, fodder difficulties exist in a number of areas. In addition, farmers in such areas have had great difficulty allowing animals to graze such lands and many animals have already been brought indoors, further exacerbating the winter fodder difficulties.

The Government identified the fodder crisis and the weather-related problems. In early August I was invited by many Deputies to visit areas and see at first hand the difficulties that had arisen. Deputy Neville's constituency was one of the first I visited. I was in places such as Carrigkerry and Ardagh where I saw for myself the problems in that heavy soil. I fully understand the situation. I also visited north Kerry and since then I have been to many other areas to see the situation at first hand. The Deputy need have no fear about our understanding of the problem, although we did not bring about the heavy rainfall of 16 inches that created it.

Twenty round bales of silage is not enough.

Please allow the Minister of State to continue without interruption.

We know about the problem and we identified it. We were there with local people to see the problem at first hand.

Twenty round bales?

Please, Deputy.

The time of the Minister of State is limited.

Deputy Neville's front bench colleagues were obviously afraid to come out because of the weather. It was too wet at the time.

We were not invited. We did not know the Minister of State was there.

Allow the Minister of State to continue without interruption. He has a limited amount of time.

The Minister has made an accusation.

The Deputy was in the fine weather business.

A number of areas of the country have been particularly affected. These have already been documented in Teagasc reports. In summary, they are as follows: Leitrim; Cavan-West; Roscommon-North (Keadue, Arigna); Mayo (Belmullet, Westport, Ballina, Swinford); along the rivers Shannon and Suck, including the Shannon callows; Clare, all areas, especially north and west Clare; Limerick, west and south-west; Longford-north; Donegal, all except east Donegal; Kerry, south and east of Killarney; Galway, wetland areas and Connemara; Sligo, especially west and south; Cork-West, Duhallow and Skibbereen/Bantry areas. Deputy Neville will note that parts of County Limerick are included in this list.

The Government has responded by making £10 million available to deal with fodder difficulties being experienced by certain farmers. The details of the new scheme are being finalised with a view to making payments as quickly as possible. European Commission approval has already been sought. In addition, it has also been decided to seek the approval of the European Commission to continue sheep headage top-up equivalent to £2.75 million. The intention is that this money would be made available for mountain ewes and suckler and small dairy herds in the worst affected areas, including some of Deputy Neville's area. A major consideration is the need to devise payment arrangements that would get assistance quickly to farmers.

I welcome the Minister's success in announcing this evening the carcase weight increase to 360 kilos and the decision to allow O4s into intervention. This is a major step forward.

That affects only 1,800 cattle.

That is propaganda rubbish.

It is not.

This has been widely acclaimed right across the agricultural community because no one thought it could be done.

Is the Minister of State saying that 1,800 cattle will solve the problem? It will not.

The Deputy should allow the Minister to continue.

Cattle prices will stabilise resulting from the decision in Brussels this evening, which will be finalised on Friday. We must welcome this. I do not like the negative views on the Opposition benches. There will always be a future for agriculture.

The Minister of State should return to his own Department and see how negative it is.

The Deputy asked about Iran. I am glad to say that the Minister had a very successful visit there. We will shortly see the re-opening of that market when the Iranian technical delegation arrives here to look at our processing plants and farms. I am sorry the Deputy is so concerned about it, but I want to assure him that everything possible is being done by the Government. We are not at clinics, as other Ministers were. We are doing the business sincerely in a very difficult situation. Let no one say anything else.

The Minister of State should tell that to the farmers outside his Department.

It has all been sorted out this evening. In addition to the winter fodder scheme, the Minister has over recent weeks announced a series of measures to assist farmers with their cash flow this autumn. These measures include speeding up direct payments to farmers — these are worth £1 billion annually and account for half of all income from farming; an increased advance in suckler cow and special beef premium payments from 60 to 80 per cent which will release an additional £45 million to farmers in November and December; more rapid payment of REPS where such payments are falling due; payment of outstanding top-up of £6 million to certain beef producers in early October; arrangements for Teagasc to hold special free advisory clinics on fodder in the areas affected; promoting live exports, including progress on re-opening trade with Libya — I am glad to say that in excess of 100,000 live cattle have been exported this year and last year; agreement was reached in Brussels last Friday to substantially increase beef export refunds, the increase is equivalent to 5p per lb. of beef, and follows previous export refund increases for beef, pigmeat — which was further increased this evening — and SMP; ensuring that appropriate transport facilities are available for live exports; and securing the Iranian market for our beef exports.

I think this is an impressive list of actions and should help the cash flow of farmers, including those in County Limerick.