Common Agricultural Policy Reform: Statements (Resumed)
My apologies for being late to the Chamber. I propose to share time with Deputy John Browne. I welcome the opportunity to speak on CAP negotiations and CAP reform. We have a very serious crisis at the farm gate in respect of the fodder crisis. In my part of the country, we are on the back of a desperate summer. Some people in my area have cattle inside since June last year. I appeal for something to be done for these people. There is major despondency about this point. I acknowledge that commodity prices have increased but costs, including the cost of production, have increased greatly. People I talk to have seen their profits wiped out for 2012 and are looking into 2013 expecting their profits to be wiped out. This is a major crisis. The banks, the merchants and the co-ops should be taking a lenient view of what is considered a reasonably good outlook in the long term for agriculture and commodity prices. We must encourage people.
We are at a crossroads in agriculture in respect of the negotiations in CAP. What will be determined will be the blueprint for agriculture over the coming decade. The argument has constantly been about protecting the productive farmer, making sure that the payments are there for people who are working extremely hard to develop their farms and businesses, and for Ireland Inc to ensure it has an agriculture industry with a huge amount of exports in beef, sheep and milk. There is also a section of society comprised of farmers who want to be productive. Over the years they have benefited from very small payments and strived to develop a business for themselves and their families so that they can live off the land. They want to be productive farmers and it is not true to say that those on small payments are not productive. Such language should not be used within the farming sector. They are productive and a huge number of the people I meet, as I am sure the Minister does, are mad to get into agriculture on a full-time basis. They want to ensure they can derive a living from their land or the land they rent. This sector must be seriously examined because of the amount of exports that can be grown by Ireland Inc if we allow the underdeveloped agriculture sector to develop further.
We should also acknowledge the massive contribution made by farmers over the past 20 years in respect of regulation. We have a world-class food industry and a world-class product we can sell any stage because farmers have taken major regulation nationally and from Europe. They have bought into it at the farm gate. Some of the articles were written recently against agriculture in respect of greening. No sector has been so concerned with the environment or has worked the environment so well over the past 20 years. The farmers have taken a major amount of regulation but have built up a world-class product at the farm gate and it can be stood over by any Minister, Government or Department. According to some of the proposals put before the Commission last week, it looks like over the coming three months to the end of June there will be a major onus on us to ensure that whatever redistribution takes place, the man working his land and who is prepared to work his land is looked after. Similarly, we should encourage the man who has a very small payment through no fault of his own, who bought land or rented land due to family circumstances and is prepared to develop the industry and sees a future for himself and his wife and family in agriculture, whether in milk, beef, sheep or tillage. The statistics of the European Parliament show the small percentage of young farmers. National debates also use this statistic as a barometer. A huge number of people are prepared to do it providing the payments are in order.
Comments made by certain people within the farming industry refer to different proposals. The capping of the Common Agricultural Policy must come into play. It is certainly an issue that must be examined. We cannot have 80% of payments going to 20% of farmers. There must be redistribution and meaningful capping of payments. In past negotiations, capping has been introduced at a level that has no meaningful role. The issue is that a huge number of farmers may not, because of the size of their single farm payment, be classified as productive farmers. They are willing to work the land and derive an income from it but there must be a base payment and a floor to allow them to grow and develop their industry so that we can increase our product in line with the Food Harvest 2020 document produced by Deputy Brendan Smith. We must achieve the commitments within that document and grow the industry as we grow into the emerging markets looking for a quality product such as the Irish product.
The Common Agricultural Policy has a 10% cut in funding. We must ensure Pillar 2 is looked after in respect of the farming side and the rural development side. There is an agenda to try to streamline the rural agenda development side into local authorities and to do away with Leader companies throughout the country. That is a retrograde step because people all over Europe are looking at Ireland's model of the distribution of Leader funding. People are trying to copy it all over Europe while in Ireland we are trying to dismantle it. This is very serious for farming.
It is the template for agriculture going forward and we must look at it very seriously.
As I said, there is a serious fodder crisis. People from my part of the country are travelling hundreds of miles to source feed. It behoves us all to ensure there are meaningful talks with the farming community and that a worthwhile measure is put in place to alleviate the crisis.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on CAP reform. I come from County Wexford, where we have had a major debate on productive versus non-productive farmers. I have attended many meetings with the IFA on this issue. As the Minister knows, County Wexford would be one of the-----
Was the Deputy outlining the Fianna Fáil position?
I am going to outline my position in regard to Wexford farmers-----
That was not the question.
-----who are very important to agricultural production in this country. As the Minister will know, we have very productive farmers in Wexford and very strong food products are provided by them. We have Irish Country Meats, Slaney Meats, Kavanagh Meats and a number of companies which provide very valuable job opportunities for the people of Wexford. In addition to paying good money to farmers for their products, they provide considerable employment in the county and we want that to continue.
The Minister, in the negotiations, was always going to be against the clock in trying to protect the amount of money available, but we must recognise the importance of agriculture to this country. It is one area of the economy which, in recent years, has expanded, developed and provided some hope for the future.
One of the concerns expressed to me by farmers in the south east is the reduction in the size of CAP funding. As Deputy Moynihan said, there will be a reduction of approximately 11%. The direct payments pot remains unchanged at €277 billion, which amounts to a €58 billion reduction in the current budget, beginning in 2014. The single farm payment allocation to Ireland has been reduced by €42 million and there is serious concern in the farming community about how this will pan out. If farmers have to take a reduction, it will affect their operations in the future. It is very important that the Minister, in conjunction with the Parliament, fights to ensure farmers' incomes are protected.
Heading 2, covering agriculture, rural development, fisheries and financial instruments for the environment and climate action, should not exceed €373 billion, of which €277 billion will be dedicated to market-related expenditure and direct payments. I read in today's Irish Examiner that the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Hogan, cast doubt on Leader spending. As the Minister will know, I have argued for quite some time that the Leader programme should revert to the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine because the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Hogan, and his Department have made a bags of it. The Leader programme is currently on hold in terms of approving projects. That has gone on for two months and Leader projects throughout the country have told me they have a number of projects ready to be approved but they cannot get any direction from the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government. Will the Minister intervene? There are some good and worthwhile projects in the pipeline which cannot get approval as the programme is on hold in the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government. It has said a review is being carried out and the Minister, Deputy Hogan, said this cast doubt on Leader spending of €314 million. Those involved with Leader projects have told me they would spend that money and more if they had it. There seems to be a conflict between the Leader programmes and the Minister, Deputy Hogan. As the Minister in the House knows, good and worthwhile projects have been approved by Leader in my county and, I am sure, in every other county. The hands of the boards of Leader projects are tied, and I ask the Minister to intervene. I argued with the former Minister, Deputy Ó Cuív, that it was a major mistake to take the Leader programme out of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. It should always be in that Department because it concerns rural development.
I support what Deputy Moynihan said about the fodder crisis. It may not be as big a problem in County Wexford as in other counties. I am sure some Wexford farmers are benefitting by selling fodder to other parts of the country, although it is a problem in some parts of County Wexford. It is a major problem nationally and I have been contacted by the IFA and the ICMSA in this regard. The Minister should engage in serious negotiations with farmer organisations to ensure that some reasonable solution is found to this issue, which is of major concern to farmers.
I refer to Harvest 2020. We received a document in the past week from Food and Drink Industry Ireland entitled "Shaping the agri-food future: Policy priorities of the food and drink sector 2013". It refers to achieving the targets of 2020 not only in the production area but in new and existing markets and in developing markets in the EU and further afield. What proposals does the Minister have in that area? What working arrangements does he have with Food and Drink Industry Ireland and the primary producers in regard to moving on the processing and production facilities required in the future?
In regard to the removal of the milk quotas in the next couple of years, many farmers have told me they will need major financial investment if they are to deal with the milk production that may come on stream. I read a Teagasc report recently which stated that a farmer would need €500,000-plus to get into milk production. The IFA put forward a programme recently on how we could deal with this. Will the Minister examine it? Certainly, farmers will not have the financial wherewithal to start from scratch to develop a milk programme on their farms without some financial help and grant aid. It is an area at which we need to look now rather waiting until the quotas are abolished only to find we are not in a position to produce the extra milk required under Harvest 2020.
The Minister has been fighting a rearguard action until now. I am sure that with the Parliament and the Council he will continue to fight on behalf of Irish farmers, because agriculture seems to be the one bright area in the economy where there is a future. Many young farmers are going back into farming and the agricultural colleges are full, which is a good thing. Farmers must travel to Piltown, Cork, Galway and elsewhere to do farm education courses, but they should be able to do them locally in the vocational colleges. There are opportunities there for the future.
I welcome the opportunity to speak and thank the Whips for giving time to the very important issue of CAP reform. I welcome the work the Minister has done and the agreement by the Council of Ministers a couple of weeks ago. This is a very important development which gives some certainty in the final stage of the negotiations to the farmers of this country, because it has been a time of great concern for them. Some of the concern may have arisen from media reports and an element of lobbying by the IFA, which was representing the fear among farmers on the ground.
Points made to the effect that a flat-rate payment of approximately €196 indicated the Minister's position were very unsettling for farmers and were inaccurate. That was unfortunate and led to many heightened fears over the past couple of weeks. On foot of the agreement on the position of the Council of Ministers, we have given ourselves great flexibility as we enter the trilogue phase. That is very important.
Deputy John Browne referred to farmers from Wexford. Fianna Fáil did not necessarily represent the farmers from Wexford well in any way. It did not represent well the farmers of Cork, who were mentioned by Deputy Moynihan, or the farmers of Kildare or most parts of the country. There was flip-flopping by Fianna Fáil. At one stage, Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív was proposing more flattening than European Commissioner Ciolo was seeking. It would have decimated production levels in this country and it was most unfortunate. At a committee meeting, Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív referred to a Leitrim farmer in the IFA who believed he was not well represented by the association. I asked whether the Deputy was representing Fianna Fáil's position or just that of his constituents, and he was adamant that, as Fianna Fáil spokesman, his position was that of Fianna Fáil. If his proposal had been accepted, it would have been extremely damaging for agriculture in this country.
This is not a matter of pitting east against west or big against small; it is about fairness. There is nothing fair about payments being based on activities of farmers in 2000, 2001 and 2002. We need to move away from this and there needs to be redistribution. It was recently said to me there are 15,000 tillage farmers receiving single farm payments, yet only 5,000 are in the grain assurance scheme. How many of the 10,000 farmers who are not in the scheme tilled ground in the reference years and do not do so now? The debate has been about the armchair farmer. We do not want to be rewarding a farmer who is not active. At present, there are farmers receiving payments who are not active but who were active in the reference years. Redistribution and updating are very important.
The reference year is crucial. This was a major issue for Ireland, in particular. Ireland was the only country for which it was an issue. Initially, when 2014 was the likely reference year, the Minister and his officials received a concession. It was stipulated some entitlements would have to be activated in 2011, but that in itself was not taking the sting away given that Ireland, uniquely, has a considerable amount of conacre. The price of conacre was driven sky-high in recent times. There was a change, however, albeit at the 11th hour. The Council of Ministers stipulated that a reference year of 2012 or 2013 could be used in addition to 2014. If that is to be final position, it would be most helpful for us in Ireland. Irrespective of the year that is finally chosen, having the possibility to opt for a different reference year would be beneficial. It is already taking the sting out of the market. Crazy prices were asked for land, and land was being taken back from farmers who continuously had conacre. They were unable to gain access to land in the year in question. This was not good for agriculture as a whole in the country. I acknowledge the work of the Minister in that regard.
Over the past year to 18 months, the position of the Minister has not changed. At public meetings around the country, he stated consistently that the position of the Commissioner was to seek a move towards flattening. Only 12 to 13 months ago, the Irish compromise proposal was singularly an Irish one. It received support in principle in January or early February from the Council of Ministers. This was confirmed at its recent meeting. The approximation model is very much on the table. It is a question of flexibility and giving us the opportunity to look after our own destiny in many respects. While we accept that there is a need for redistribution, a move to full flattening would be very damaging for agriculture in Ireland. The approximation model, if it is in the final mix, will be a great help.
Let us consider some of the elements that the IFA and others were including in the mix when talking about cuts. Some of these pertain to the 3% for the national reserve, the 2% for the young farmer and 1% for the crisis. We do not have enough young farmers. The age profile is frighteningly high. On the one hand, farming organisations could welcome and support the essential measure for young farmers but, on the other, they could say it is a direct cut for farmers. The latter was not the case. It is worth bearing in mind that if what is allocated is not drawn down fully, there will be a possibility of a top-up payment for farmers at the end of the year.
I want to touch on the subject of sugar. Considerable progress was made regarding the position of the Council of Ministers. When Ireland stopped engaging in sugar production, many of us knew it was a terrible mistake. We all know this with the benefit of hindsight. It was as much a mistake for the indigenous economy as for any other sector. The European Court of Auditors backed this up in its report in 2010, stating the withdrawal was based on flawed information. In bad years, it was the beet cheque that always paid the bill for tillage farmers. I know this from my uncle. I was a member of the beet association for years and snagged beet on cold January days around Athy. I remember that I frequently sat on lorries going to the factory in Carlow.
We lost the ability to enjoy the benefits of sugar beet as a rotation crop. Industry, the largest user of sugar in the country, does not like paying through the nose for sugar, as it has been doing for the past couple of years, and it cannot handle a lack of security of supply, which has also been an issue. I am aware of a business in Kildare that lost a contract for the provision of chocolates to an airline on the basis that it did not tick the box for provenance. The ingredients were not local. When one hears about such cases and the impact on jobs outside the agriculture sector, one realises it is crucial that we return to sugar production in Ireland.
There have been some very positive feasibility studies. I acknowledge the work of BEET Ireland, in particular. I was delighted to have the opportunity to travel to Brussels with Deputies Andrew Doyle and Tom Barry in November. We met senior officials and experts in sugar to make the case for Ireland's return to sugar production. The Commission stipulated a date of 2015. The Ministers have agreed on 2017. The Parliament’s position refers to 2020, with the derogation for Ireland. I accept that derogations can be very messy, be they for Ireland, Portugal or Slovenia. A cleaner cut is a better approach for us. It is in our interest to have the framework gone by 2015. We could possibly live with 2017. Who is to say that, in the trilogues, we will not be able to pare another year off this, if possible?
With regard to the recession and the economy in general, I have always said we do not need to reinvent the wheel. While the smart economy, IT and pharmaceuticals are important, we need to get back to basics. There is no better example of an indigenous industry lost during the boom than the sugar beet industry. It survived the great depression of the 1930s and recessions in the 1950s and 1970s, but, unfortunately, it did not survive the Celtic tiger. Ireland has the climate, soil type and grower expertise for sugar production. We need to return to sugar production and support all the measures in that regard.
With regard to greening, there has been considerable concern among farmers. The measures agreed by the Council of Ministers provide greater clarity on our position. The proposal is much better than the one that was initially on the table. Variable greening is crucial. There could have been flattening by the back door. I commend the Minister on the progress made in this regard.
With regard to crop diversification, farmers with between ten and 30 hectares of arable land must have two crops. That is an improvement on the original position. Farmers with over 30 hectares must have three crops, but when one allows for the fact that winter and spring barley are considered two different crops, one realises the measure will not be as onerous as originally feared.
On coupled support, the Minister’s position indicates a figure of 7%. Again, this gives us flexibility. Between coupling and the coefficient, the whole point is that when the process is finished - by the end of June, I hope - the Minister will have the maximum amount of flexibility for us to do what is best for us within Ireland. I wish the Minister well in the trilogues. It is interesting that we are now in a sufficiently strong position. The Minister has engineered a good negotiating position. We will be agreeing with the Commission on positions such as those on sugar while we may not necessarily be agreeing with it on subjects such as flattening, in respect of which we will be more likely to side with the Parliament. That is how the process will work. I wish the Minister well in the upcoming negotiations.
I welcome the agreement reached by the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Coveney, on the new round of Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, payments. These new payments brokered by the Minister represent a fantastic result for farmers in Ireland. The Minister endorsed the principle of flexibility in the way in which direct payments are to be distributed within member states, known in Ireland as internal convergence. From Ireland's perspective, this has been the outstanding issue in the negotiations.
Reform of CAP was necessary to respond to future challenges for agriculture and rural areas, namely, variable food production, sustainable management of natural resources and climate action. Ministers from 27 member states of the EU accepted a package of proposals tabled by the Irish Presidency and successfully concluded what is known as a general approach on the CAP reform package. This agreement between the 27 member states is not the end of the road. The Irish Presidency will represent the Council in discussions with the European Parliament and the Commission.
The Irish Presidency's proposal for an inter-institutional political agreement by the end of June remains on target. The Council also agreed to the proposals from the Minister, Deputy Coveney, on the greening of direct payments. These proposals add flexibility to the Commission's original proposals to ensure that farmers can practise sustainable agriculture without overly bureaucratic impediments. The agreement also addresses Ireland's requirements for greening payments to be based on a percentage of farmer's single payment rather than a flat rate.
Pressure on agricultural income is increasing as consumers demand higher standards in production and traceability while input costs continue to rise. The reform proposals contain a strong greening element, requiring many to adopt farming systems that are favourable to the environment. There is enormous economic and social value in keeping productive farmers at all levels of production on the land. Agricultural income makes an important contribution to the local economy. Farmers purchase goods and services and provide employment in local communities. For these reasons, among others, agricultural incomes across the spectrum must be supported.
The proposal also makes specific reference to the need to reduce administration costs and the burden on direct support to small farmers. Proposals to further strengthen rural development policies were agreed, providing member states with the opportunity to transfer funds from direct payment ceilings to supports directed at rural development. These proposals are favourable to smaller producers who, in comparison to larger producers, require income support to achieve greater efficiency and are less able to adapt to market and environmental changes. This should be of benefit to families in Ireland.
I congratulate the Minister on gaining acceptance for the package of proposals put forward by the Irish Presidency. The proposals were agreed following protracted negotiations resulting in a general approach on reform of the CAP.
The debate within the farming community regarding the current proposals on reform of the CAP payments system has been intense and will become more intense as we move towards a final decision on the shape of the new scheme. The perception that the outcome will not include a better deal for small and medium sized farmers is causing a good deal of disquiet, particularly in counties with smaller holdings and poorer land where payments are, on average, low and often lower than the average industrial wage. In my own area of Laois, a huge part of which is classified disadvantaged, this is having an effect.
At a meeting last week, attended by a large number of farmers, the overwhelming view was that farm leadership has not properly represented the majority of farmers who would stand to gain if there is a fairer distribution of payments. There is also the perception that the debate has not been conducted in as open a manner as it might have been. While some farm leaders have given the impression that any move towards a flat rate system, of whatever design, would be bad for Irish farming in general, and for most Irish farmers individually, that is not the view on the ground, in particular by small to medium sized farmers.
There is resentment at the insinuation that farmers on smaller payments and with poorer land, who often have to seek part-time off-farm employment to supplement low incomes, are in some way lesser farmers. This resentment turns to anger when it appears that certain farm leaders, while opposing a redistribution of payments to actual farmers, defend the huge payments to a tiny proportion of recipients, a significant number of whom are not active farmers but agribusinesses. Massive payments have been made to a small number of farmers in the recent past. It is absurd to believe that cutting the payments of a farmer earning over €100,000 will adversely impact on productivity and that increasing the payment of the farmer on less than €5,000 will encourage him or her to sit at home with their feet up watching television. Yet, this is the logic of some of the statements made in opposition to a move towards a fairer distribution of payments. There has been huge opposition by vested interests in this regard. The actual distribution of current payments illustrates the imbalance. As stated by other speakers, just over 2,000 recipients of the single farm payment, with entitlements of €50,000 and above, receive more between them annually than do the more than 50,000 farmers in receipt of less than €5,000 per annum. For example, in County Leitrim, more than 88% of farmers are on payments of less than €10,000 per annum and over 25% receive less than €2,000 per annum. It is small wonder then that there is anger at the stance of those who appear to be putting the interests of seven individuals on payments of €50,000 and more above the interests of 3,355 other Leitrim farmers. This applies right across the west of Ireland. Of the 53,000 farmers in Counties, Donegal, Sligo, Leitrim, Mayo, Galway, Roscommon and Clare, only 185 are in receipt of a single farm payment of more than €50,000 per annum. Is anyone seriously claiming that the interests of those 185 farmers outweigh the interests of all the others?
I hope that the Minister will not allow the debate on the final shape of the reform to be dictated by the interests of a few. While there is some disappointment with what has taken place thus far, the debate has not concluded. There are options for a radical redistribution of payments, including the option to front-load on the first 32 ha, for which Sinn Féin will be calling. The reference in last week's agreement to flexibility has been interpreted by some to mean that this State ought to come down on the most conservative interpretation of the proposals. Sinn Féin and tens of thousands of small and medium sized Irish farmers argue the opposite. The Minister, in the face of what will be intense pressure, ought to take the more radical options, where available.
Sinn Féin also spoke last week of the need to make it easier for young farmers to establish holdings. The current age profile of farmers, particularly on marginal land in Ireland, is a crisis in the making. There is need for address of this issue, including by the EU. As well as supporting younger farmers, we must make it more attractive for older farmers to hand on farms and keep the industry going. The success of the EU CAP negotiations and decisions made in regard to flexibility in redistributing available funding locally will have a major impact on agriculture and food production in rural areas. We must ensure these holdings are sustainable over the next decade. The decisions made now will have a major impact over the coming decades not only on agriculture but on local economies, the agri-food business and our national economy and well-being. I urge the Minister to focus on ensuring the holdings of small and medium sized farmers are sustainable and viable, not to be dictated to by a small cohort of farmers and agribusinesses that are sucking the lifeblood out of the CAP system and to ensure the payments are fairly distributed.
The Minister did an excellent job in the negotiations on the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, in getting us to this level and there is no doubt that task was difficult. I live next door to one of those young farmers we talk about which this country badly needs. My 11 year old and 12 year old sons have learned to milk cows and feed new-born calves. Living in close proximity to this working farm has kept me very much in touch with what farming life is like today. It is very different from the type of farming I did when I was a younger.
Young farmers such as the farmer who lives next door to me are investing heavily in modernising and building up their farms. They are making a huge commitment in that respect now and for the future. Looking after farm animals and trying to get land ready for this year's crops in sub-arctic conditions shows how unpredictable farming can be when one considers that the children were going around in T-shirts on that farm this time last year.
It is important for us to bear in mind how the farming sector is faring and what we want to get from that sector. Farmers provide raw materials to the agri-food industry, which is worth €9 billion to the economy, an industry we badly need at this time. In County Wexford, for instance, there are a large number of hardware stores, co-op stores, milk processors and meat factories and the livelihoods of the people employed in those outlets depend directly on what farmers are doing on their farms. There is a large number of pubs, shops and hotels directly dependent for their survival on how we make agriculture work. That is why the CAP negotiations are extremely important to ensure we look after productive farms and that we are able to fulfil the 2020 policy strategy for farming. Having regard to when milk quotas will go and the fact that basic prices for farm produce are good now, we need to be able to exploit that. We must ensure farmers who are investing in their farms and young people who want commit their lives to farming know that the unpredictability that surrounded the sector is being removed. There must be a clear pathway for how their future in farming will develop. That is one aspect that the Minister, Deputy Coveney, has made clear for the farming community.
There is a commitment to redistribution and that has been made clear. The Minister is right in the way he is moving in this respect. We cannot make huge changes overnight. We must be careful how we go about it. We do not want to create unpredictability in the sector and that those farmers who are working hard to produce €9 billion worth of raw materials for our agrifood business have confidence in investing in their future in farming and will continue to do so.
One thing we can do is to commit to co-funding in terms of the funding we secure from Europe and the Minister must try to get a clear commitment from his colleagues in Cabinet to do that. We must ensure that the other Ministers commit to that because such funding is hugely important for farmers who live in disadvantaged areas and farmers who rely very much on those schemes that provide small amounts of money. Such funding is vital. We must focus our energies on securing a commitment in that respect. We can leave it to the Minister to do the work in Europe and thus far he has done great job, but from our point of view we must work to ensure that co-funding continues.
The Minister was right about changing the reference year. That has helped to cool down some of the madness in regard to renting land, and that is important.
I agree with what Deputy Martin Heydon said about how we should be gearing up for the sugar beet industry. A good deal of work has been done in this respect and it is now time to test the business models in terms of getting that industry up and running again and to move from the theory to the practice. If sugar beet quotas are to go in 2017, we should prepare for that now and gear up to see if it is a sustainable industry and one we can bring back into economy. We need to move from talking about it to acting on it.
There are other issues on which the Minister needs to keep an eye. Change has taken place in the way the plcs are splitting up with the primary processing business returning to the co-ops and the value-added element of the business staying with the plcs. We need to monitor that. Farm prices are good at the moment but if they were to fall for a period, that could have a significant effect on the sustainability of co-ops for the future which again could affect our agricultural sector. The Minister's Department needs to monitor that and to ensure we keep farming on the sustainable pathway that has been achieved in the past number of years and that is being very much supported by the policies that the Minister is bringing forward at this time.
If I were to say three things in the sector that matter to me, I would single out the reference year, which is extremely important, productive farming and making sure we can continue to fulfil the targets under the 2020 policy strategy, and keep the existing jobs in rural Ireland. I refer not only to jobs on farms but jobs in the meat factories, local co-ops and local hardware stores. The sector also sustains shops and hotels in County Wexford and elsewhere. That is the reason it is important that we focus on the productive development of farming.
We in this House should raise a debate on the co-payments. There will be a great push to cut the budget of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine in the next few budgets because things are still difficult here. The importance of co-payments and EU funding for the sector should be taken into account. Such funding is important not only for rural Ireland and those engaged in farming but for all aspects of Irish society. It is important that we very much focus on that issue.
There will be huge changes in the next few years in the way huge changes have occurred during the past decade. The value added element of Irish produce and the fact that we have a very good raw ingredient has made easy the accessing of foreign markets. When I was in Berlin on one occasion people were talking about the different types of steaks and I was amazed that Irish steak was mentioned. Our product is deemed to be a very superior one. We must make sure that we protect that. The way the Minister dealt with the recent horsemeat crisis was appropriate. We have shown that we are transparent in how we dealt with it and that we are extremely concerned to maintain high standards. It will be reflected in the future that we are a country producing the best quality agricultural raw ingredients and product for the market.
I support what the Minister is doing and I hope we can continue along this line in producing the best products and keeping farms sustainable. Changes to CAP are important in regard to the funding that will be put aside for new entrants and for people who possibly do not receive single farm payments at this time. Some people did lose out because they were not actively farming at the time the reference years were taken into account in the past. That discriminates against people who want to be involved in productive farming and who should be getting supports in the same way as people who were actively involved in farming at the time.
The Minister has made a clear commitment that there will be redistribution in that many farmers who were in receipt of extraordinary payments, of whom there are only a very small number, will have their payments reduced. The figures show that there will be substantial increases for a huge number of farmers for a number of reasons be it that they are not in a physical position to be able to work their farms to the highest level, their land is marginal or for other reasons. They are not engaged in the productive element in farming and their payments have historically been lower because of that. The Minister is right to improve that position for those farmers. In many parts of the country it depends on where one's farm is. I grew up in west Cork where there are many disadvantaged areas and areas where it can be very difficult to farm.
I represent County Wexford, which is completely different. The land is very productive and the farmers use every inch of it. They make a massive contribution to the local and national economies and we should give them every support possible. We must also make sure we look after farmers who are not capable of working or whose land cannot sustain the type of production I see in County Wexford. I commend the Minister's work and urge him to keep it going.
I too am delighted to be able to speak today on CAP reform. Like other speakers I compliment the Minister, because his task was not easy. It was a difficult time for him but he had a wonderful family event in the midst of it, which I hope worked out well, and I hope the christening will be wonderful too, whenever he gets around to it.
This is a very important issue which cannot be dealt with glibly or lightly. It is very complex. I welcome the fact that redistribution is on the table and the reference year had to be considered. I come from south Tipperary, from the foot of the county on the Waterford border, where there is a diverse mix of land. We cannot penalise productive farmers for being productive and for investing and helping us to meet our targets. There are also severely disadvantaged areas, such as uplands with sheep and very little else. They are affected by planting on adjoining land and the worry now about the sale of Coillte and straying deer. At one time Coillte did a lot of fencing, but now it fences only until trees reach a certain height and then abandons the fencing. The farmers have a problem with sheep straying in and the damage deer do when roaming the farms.
For the record, there is no proposal to sell Coillte.
I accept that. We debated that here quite recently. Towards the end of the debate, and speaking afterwards to the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Howlin, who took the debate, I had the feeling that the Government would not go back on that commitment. I was worried in case certain high-ranking former Members of this House were involved in a smash-and-grab, which must not happen.
We must deal with CAP reform in a balanced way. The small organisations separate from the IFA must also be heard because they represent small producers. It cannot be a case of one-size-fits-all. I know how important agriculture is to this economy, having been born and reared on a farm and seen the transition from sitting on a three-legged stool to milk the cow to the highly mechanised and professional systems for dairy farming and sophisticated mechanisms for crop-farming. I am sure the Leas-Cheann Comhairle remembers the three-legged stool too.
Last night we discussed the Animal Health and Welfare Bill 2012. I fully supported the Minister. Of the farmers I know, 99.9% are very concerned about animal welfare and do not have to be lectured by the Dublin Deputies on how to look after their animals and treat them fairly. It would suit those Dublin Deputies better to go down and see what goes on in the country before they get too tied up in knots about little furry animals. We continue to receive e-mails this morning from people who condemn us, but we live in a democracy. More than 100 Deputies voted one way and only 12 or 13 voted the other way. When will these people listen? Why do they not stand for election themselves and come in here and change the whole situation? That is what I say to the people who are pestering me with e-mails today, some of which are quite scurrilous. We put up with that and accept it.
We had a very good debate on that topic this morning.
We had. I missed the debate this morning but I was here last evening. The people outside the House want to continue the debate and twist our arms, telling us how to vote. I am a democrat. I said last night it is a pity that there were not 100 Deputies in here who wanted to vote against the Bill, which would answer these people's problems.
To return to farming-----
I understand there are complexities, in that large payments have been made to some inactive farmers. I understand that disability may render a farmer inactive, but I am talking about factory farms, not farms being run as viable agricultural units. We must be careful and understanding of land mass and land uses in general. Although I hate to say it, there is a concern in my county, which has a proud record of equine industry, about the amount of land any one conglomerate can own. Many young farmers have contacted me recently about the constant purchasing of land by certain conglomerates. There should be some boundaries there, because one size does not fit all. It is difficult for young small farmers. It is great to see people turning back to agriculture in such large numbers. During the Celtic tiger days it was not sexy to be in farming, if Members will pardon the expression. A five-day-a-week or four-and-a-half-day-a-week job with handy hours and better money was more attractive.
Thankfully, the farm has sustained our economy since the inception of the State. In the last two recessions, I recall that farming played a profound role in our recovery and it is ready, willing and able to do so again now, provided the bureaucrats allow it to do so. While I am all for health and safety and regulations, we cannot just stifle ourselves with regulations. I started a discussion this morning about the number of gardaí in the country and their situation. In my town, Clonmel, the ratio is 600 people to one garda. The last time I checked the figures there were only 40 farmers to one agricultural official. That is overkill. The Minister is talking about bringing in further legislation on dog control, which is very necessary. There are too many officials in the agriculture sector and not enough in other areas, such as the Garda Síochána. I am not saying it is the Minister's problem. I suppose he inherited it. We have to get the balance right. Farmers are bedevilled with too many officials and too much health and safety. There was a farcical situation in County Cork recently when lads filled a pothole. Well done to them. It would have been a shame on them if they had not filled it because somebody else would have been injured. Many of these people who arrive with briefcases and so on are very good but many are too zealous. They are over the top. People question me about the EU and its rules but the biggest problem is the number of statutory instruments and additions that we make to them when they come into our system. We should look at what happens in France and elsewhere.
The relationship between farmers and banks is at a low ebb because the banks lied to the last Government on the night of the bank guarantee and they are lying to this Government. They are not playing ball with farmers as business people. I regularly meet farmers who cannot buy fodder. Their overdraft facilities are cancelled. The banks tell us they are lending because they call people in about their overdrafts and send them out with a term loan under their arms. They are forcing them to take out term loans because farmers have to feed their animals. This matter was raised this morning. It is especially true in this prolonged winter. We had a terrible summer and a reasonable enough winter, and the weather dried up in early March, but now the weather is very bad, fertiliser has been put out and the crops that have been sown are struggling. We have a fodder crisis. Banks need to put their shoulder to the wheel, because the farmers were always good to the banks. They always paid their debts. Even in the last recession in the 1980s they were the only people who had huge borrowings but they paid them off.
I am sorry Deputy Twomey has left the Chamber. There is a great group of farmers in County Wexford who are standing up to the blackguarding of the bankers and the liquidators who are sending people out with pieces of paper, claiming they are court orders when they are not. They bring security companies with them - heavy-handed people. Thankfully, on a few occasions they have been removed because the paperwork was not right. The laws of the land are being flouted. Agriculture and land are very emotive issues in Ireland. There have been land wars. We need only think of "The Field". The banks' code of practice is not worth the paper it is written on because they are not adhering to it. They have over-zealous liquidation companies who claim to have court orders and all the law on their side. I sat in a bank with a group of people who were in trouble and the managing director told me his lease and hire purchase agreements were more powerful than any court order. These bankers need to be taught a lesson. They need to be exposed and outed, because that is the way they think and feel. They are worse than the agents they send out, the marauding thugs who have in some cases beaten up farmers and their families and small business people and their families. They are worse.
CAP is very important and so is reform.
However, we must get our own house in order, and call off these bloodhounds and get them to work with the farmers and support farmers who always supported them. Farmers always paid their way and want to pay their way. Harvest 2020 is hugely important, but the spirit of farmers and agricultural communities is being broken. Agricultural contractors have been affected also.
I am a proud member of the FCI, Farm Contractors of Ireland Association, a new organisation which is one year old and was launched by the late Deputy and Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Shane McEntee. We have sent proposals to both the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine and the Minister for Finance highlighting the importance of the agricultural contractor sector to Harvest 2020. We are all in this together and the sooner this is recognised the better. Professional agricultural contractors receive no fuel rebate, while other sectors such as hauliers do. The FCI wants a simple contractor invoicing system for all farmers to cut out much of the black economy and allow farmers to reinvest. The banks must assist contractors in renewing their machinery which must be replaced every three to five years. However, they have reneged in providing credit for this sector. The bankers have sold their lending books for as little as 20% in some cases, yet they demand 80% to 100% payments from contractors. Sweet cosy deals have been done with bankers to sell off their loan books and send the heavies to the contractors who owe on their loans. This despicable practice must stop. We had enough of it in the days of the Peep o' Day Boys and the Black and Tans. Some High Court judges are sitting up and taking note of these practices and ensuring banks know the limits of their rights and powers when repossessing machinery and so forth. Their practices, of course, will spread to home owners soon. The best growing industry in the country is liquidators and their agents, a third force, a militia, who are going beyond their powers to beat up, intimidate and threaten debtors. Some of them are not even Irish but of other nationalities who have been trained by armies. These are the heavies sent to deal with our people. We must stop this practice and support our people, whether they are in houses, business or farming and stand up to these bullyboy tactics and the banks.
I was always a proud activist in the sugar beet industry and we used to have a sugar factory in Thurles. I am looking forward to a meaningful examination of restoring the industry after 2017 when the sugar quota is abolished. Not being personal, I heard the Minister’s brother one morning on a RTE programme talking about reviving the industry. However, I am not happy with the behaviour of Greencore in this saga of the closing down of the sugar industry. I am less happy with the behaviour of the former Fianna Fáil Government that presided over its closure. It was a disgraceful sell-out. The mistake was made in closing the Carlow factory which was down to greed. Some developers wanted a brownfield site in Carlow, which was why it was sold. We have the ideal location for a new factory in Lisheen, County Tipperary which the Minister passes on his way home to Cork. It is an excellent, centrally located site, with access to an excellent road network.
Sugar beet was a fabulous rotation crop and the sugar industry provided employment throughout the year from ploughing and tilling to the sowing of seed. As a buachaill óg I thinned beet, from which I gained a good experience of life. Then there was beet harvesting, the crop, the nuts and the pulp. It was an all year-round industry for farmers, their families and contractors. It was reckless to close down the industry. The role of Greencore and the former Government left much to be desired. It was a wonderful industry that had been set up from scratch with small farmers and nurtured into a significant industry with larger farmers. I came from a farm where we always had 40 acres given over to sugar beet production, as it was a wonderful rotation crop. It is still being grown and used as fodder; therefore, the expertise has not been lost. The Minister could re-establish the industry when the sugar quota goes after 2017. It is the one mark he could leave on his Department. I have already recognised that he is doing a good job.
The FCI is lobbing the Minister for Finance to examine some of its meaningful proposals. One involves the fuel rebate which was extended from hauliers to bus companies. Sadly, it was not extended to agricultural contractors. We all know about the cost of oil. The FCI is also looking for a simple, registered invoicing system for all farmers to ensure only registered contractors would be used to ensure payments were all above board. I am not knocking any farmer’s son who wants to buy a tractor to do some contracting work, but it has to be done within the legitimate system. Contractors are struggling, but we have a professional organisation led by Mr. Timothy O’Brien. Their concerns and proposals need to be listened to and systems put in place to ensure contractors can achieve the Harvest 2020 and Common Agricultural Policy targets. Farming is now a challenging and highly skilled task. Most farmers hire in contractors because they have to concentrate on getting it right.
I call on Deputy Paul Connaughton who I understand is sharing time with Deputy John Paul Phelan.
I congratulate the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine on how well the CAP reform negotiations are going so far. It is no mean feat to come up with a solution on how to spread the money across the country, never mind get 26 other member states to agree to it.
We now know redistribution will be the model chosen, one with which I have no problem. There are quite a number of farmers who receive either no single farm payment or very small rates of single farm payment who certainly deserve a lift. It is too simplistic, however, to make this out as a case of east versus west or north versus south. Coming from County Galway, I know quite a number of productive farmers who are doing their very best on marginal ground who will more than likely take a hit under in the redistribution model. There will also be a number of farmers who will gain and it will make the system fairer. From talking to farmers, the issue is not big versus small but productive versus non-productive farmers. It is about the farmer who is doing his or her very best against the farmer with many entitlements but who is not farming to the capacity he or she should be at. It is important we have this principle now that the system will assist those who will use the single farm payment to invest in their farms and boost production.
Initially, the claim was thrown out that the minimum payment would be great for farmers in the west. However, the agriculture sector is producing well and it is important we continue to encourage this. Supports have to be in place for productive farmers, wherever they may be located.
The one concern farmers in the west have is about the proposed reforms to Pillar 2, rural development. Most farmers in Connacht are suckler cow farmers. This year payments under the suckler cow welfare scheme were reduced to a more marginal level simply because the scheme was coming to an end. However, the beef sector needs supports, particularly the suckler cow element. Because of the harsh spring, money is being lost on the majority of suckler cows.
The price of beef is quite good, with which there is no issue, but input costs are high also. I know of many feed merchants throughout County Galway who are running out of stock as farmers struggle to feed their cattle and sheep. These farmers will take a hit this year. While prices may be good, which is welcome and long may it continue, input costs are remarkably high also. The suckler cow industry needs support, regardless of whether we return the suckler cow welfare scheme payment to a higher level, back up to €40. It was a great scheme because it included the production of weanlings and involved feed control measures, animal husbandry and so on. It did exactly what it had set out to do. Another ship is being readied to sail to Libya in the coming weeks. This is where the suckler cow scheme paid off, especially with regard to the welfare of animals on the boat. Our export trade will do far better out of it because of the quality of weanlings we are producing. However, it is a loss-making industry simply because of the weather. While the Minister may be blamed for many things, he cannot be blamed for the weather. We need to find a way around this problem because the suckler cow farmer and the beef sector need support from the next budget on, in whatever form the Minister decides to provide it.
We have seen a reduction in disadvantaged area payments. I understand the constraints under which the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine is working in respect of spending ceilings. However, from a west of Ireland perspective, we cannot take further cuts in the disadvantaged areas payment. There is a considerable amount of marginal land and we need to protect farmers who are doing everything they can to make that land productive. Many such farmers are trying to be productive and it is important that we get across the line. I have no issue with redistribution as long as the money goes to farmers who are active and trying to produce. If this is at a lower level, fair enough. We need a strong Pillar 2 to be co-financed and aimed at the suckler cow herd, those who are producing and trying to get weanlings to the level they were at in the past three years. This can only help our export trade. I congratulate the Minister on the job he has done so far. However, it is like jumping the first fence in the Grand National: it is great to get over it, but there are many more to be jumped. Finding a job in the other 26 countries, never mind within this one, will be tough.
I wish to raise the issue of young farmers. There is a welcome top-up of their payment, one the Minister pioneered. They deserve that top-up, but the question goes back to the topic of education. We have seen an increase in CAO entry level points for agricultural courses. There is an agricultural college in Mountbellew, County Galway. Its numbers have shot up again and it is turning away students, but its future is not altogether clear. I am, therefore, keen for the Minister to work with Teagasc in the coming weeks, months and years to obtain support for the college because it is the last remaining agricultural college in the west. There is a perception that the farmer in the west is simply looking for money and is not really farming, but to me that is nonsense and rubbish. There are many productive farmers in counties Galway and Mayo who are trying to farm in the right way. It is unfortunate that they are doing so on marginal land. There are many young farmers in the west who simply want to have an opportunity to start farming and they need to be encouraged in every way possible. I congratulate the Minister on what he has done so far. I hope he will continue to support Pillar 2 disadvantaged areas payments and the suckler cow welfare scheme. I have no issue with the redistribution as long as the money goes to the farmer, no matter what the size of his or her farm is, who is producing and active and simply looking at the Harvest 2020 strategy to get numbers up.
I agree largely with the previous speaker and commend the Minister for the work done thus far. I agree with Deputy Paul Connaughton that there is a good deal more to be done in the negotiations on the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy. If this had taken place in the old days, we would have an agreement now, but because of the new system in place and the involvement of the European Parliament, there are more hurdles to be jumped.
The initial proposals from the Commission would have been remarkably detrimental to the productive agriculture sector in this country. Almost single-handedly among his colleagues in Europe, the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine decided to propose an alternative which would be to the advantage of the productive agriculture sector in Ireland. He has managed to secure agreement from the other agriculture Ministers to support his position, which is no mean feat. As Deputy Mattie McGrath pointed out, in the middle of all of this he managed to see a new arrival in his family also. I hope he will get to see her at some stage in the coming weeks. I imagine he will do so over the long weekend ahead.
I agree fully with Deputy Paul Connaughton on the argument falsely made in many quarters that it is a case of east versus west. There are many farmers in my part of the world, County Kilkenny, who, for whatever reason, in the reference years in the early part of this century were not in a position to be as productive as they would have liked. As a result, they have relatively small single farm payments. They are now producing a good deal more and will benefit as a result. Even if there was no flattening or redistribution or the existing system was simply to have a different reference year, the farmers who are productive will benefit, regardless of the part of the country in which they are farming. We should be cognisant of the fact that a system based on the position ten or 12 years ago would never be sustainable into the future. The Minister has managed to secure a significant concession in terms of the new reference year. The possibility that the only option was to use next year, as initially outlined by the Commissioner, was having a distorting effect on the land rental market in this country; perhaps it was more distorted in this jurisdiction than anywhere elsewhere in the Union. However, the Minister has managed to ensure flexibility with regard to the reference year, which is a significant achievement in the first set of the negotiations.
The farming organisations, farmers and everyone else accept and know that there will be redistribution. I often find myself in agreement with Deputy Brian Stanley, but not this time. I was listening to his comments earlier in my office. He said, unbelievably, that there was the perception that it would not lead to a better deal for smaller and medium-sized farmers. There is not that perception anywhere. Perhaps if one was to repeat it often enough, such a perception could be created, but any redistribution will have benefits for smaller and medium-sized farmers in any part of the country. The Deputy is completely erroneous in that regard. Everyone agrees that the current system is in need of reform and updating and redistribution has to be introduced. That will be the final outcome when the negotiations are completed. It is simply a question of what the level of redistribution will be.
I agree with Deputy Paul Connaughton on the need to support active producers, those who are actively farming. The targets to which Deputy Mattie McGrath referred in respect of the Harvest 2020 strategy cannot be reached and the knock-on benefits for the economy, especially the rural economy, cannot be gained if we do not support the productive sector, regardless of whether it is based in County Galway, Mayo, Kilkenny or Carlow. That is the cornerstone of how the Minister has approached the negotiations and I fully support him.
Many of the people who have sought a larger redistribution and flattening of payments throughout the country ignore the fact that under the existing system, those with Pillar 1 payments which are made proportionately to those involved in the productive sector are compensated effectively, while Pillar 2 payments are made, rightly, to farmers who perhaps face more difficulties, whether it is because they are involved in a sector that is more challenging or because they are farming in a part of the country where the available land cannot support the level of production achieved in others.
That is why the Pillar 2 benefits have disproportionately favoured farmers with poorer ground in particular sectors. This has brought about a levelling of payments over the past number of years, but that seems to go unrecognised by many of those who are looking for greater flattening and redistribution under the reform of the CAP.
The first significant negotiation success the Minister had related to the overall budget, but I have not heard anybody make much of a reference to that. However, in light of opposition from a number of the larger countries, it was significant that the budget for the CAP was so well protected. It was the Minister who chaired many of the negotiations and his success in that regard should be on the record.
I fully support the importance of Pillar 2. The proposals go some way further towards disproving the theory some people have that this is an east-of-the-country versus west-of-the-country argument. Significant portions of my part of the world - south County Kilkenny - are part of a disadvantaged area, as the Minister will be aware from listening to me over the past number of years. I agree with Deputy Connaughton with regard to the need to protect producers on marginal land and the disadvantaged area scheme and I have spoken on this issue on many occasions. Pillar 2 also proposes the introduction of a new, more user-friendly and supportive environmental scheme, an updated suckler cow welfare scheme and possibly schemes for the sheep sector. There is scope under the Pillar 2 funding for such schemes to be included.
I also want to commend the Minister on his efforts in regard to the sugar sector. The decision taken by a previous Minister to turn our back on that sector was incredible. It is important that we position ourselves to re-enter that business, and the Minister has had significant success in that regard in negotiation so far. I wish him every success in the upcoming difficult negotiations.
The Minister is well aware that since he started his political career a number of years ago I have always supported him. I judged at the time he started out that he would be a great politician and a safe pair of hands for the future and I believe I have proved to be a good judge. We may not always agree on everything, but above all his colleagues, I have great faith and confidence in the Minister as a person of ability who is trying to do his best in a very difficult role. I will continue to support the Minister in his endeavours, as I believe he is genuine.
As the Minister would expect, I come at this issue with the view that these are dangerous times. I am aware of the Minister's view on farming and output and I hear other colleagues speak about increasing the viability of farms and production. That is all very well and it is great to speak about getting our farmers to be more productive. However, if a farmer is locked into a small farm with poor-quality land, he can only produce and do so much. All the encouragement in the world cannot get that farmer to produce more. These farmers are caught in a trap. They want to keep farming and they hope their families will take over from them in the future, although that will probably be only a part-time job for their families then. We do not want to see these people leave farming or to see these households give up their family farm.
I would like to give a genuine example of a farmer, a man who is good with regard to the pounds, shillings and pence, who has 24 cows and who set out his position to me the other day. This year, his business is running at an increased cost of €5,200. Where did these extra costs arise? They arose because he did not have enough silage of his own and had to buy silage and, as the Minister knows, a tonne of ration has never been as dear. How will the farmer make up this increased cost? He cannot make it up as it is not there to be made up. The Minister is aware of the income a holding such as this farmer's, with 24 cows, would produce. At the same time, this farmer loves his farm and wants to farm it until the day he dies. When he dies, he wants some member of his family to take over.
The Minister is in a powerful position and I understand he must cater for the big farmers and producers. However, I want him to bear in mind the need to protect these smaller farmers also, as they are very important. I do not want the future viability of small farms to be decimated under the Minister's watch. I know he does not want that to happen, but he must bear it in mind in the negotiations. It is very easy for the Minister to visit us in Kerry from his constituency and provide an optimistic overview of what he perceives will happen in the future. I appreciate that when he is in Europe and other countries and everybody there is pulling at him, he is in a tough position, but he is capable enough to deal with that. However, I want him to remember these small farmers when he is there, because they have been the backbone of Ireland and have kept the country going through bad and good times. I hope they will be allowed to continue.
On the issue of evening out payments, these farmers have already lost a lot. For example, the €80 suckler cow payment used to be the bit of a boost these people desperately needed. The old €40 calf payment, small and all as it was, was a good scheme. If a farmer had 20 calves, that payment provided an extra bit of money that would buy ration or pay for work to be done on the land or for diesel. We are in dangerous times because we have lost so much. When I was growing up, virtually every farmer in my community was a milk producer. Some farmers had five cows and the bigger farmers had 20 cows. A man milking 20 cows was considered a big farmer in my area. Now there are not a handful of milk producers in my community. This shows how much the situation has changed. This has brought a great change to the way of life of those farmers. Formerly, they used go to the creamery every day and shop in the local shops on their way home. This created a buzz in the community, but that has all gone. Now, where there are farmers producing milk, the lorry goes into their yards to collect it and that is it. It is all the big way or no way. I want to try to ensure that we protect the future viability of these small farmers.
Today, Teagasc sent out an e-mail requesting help from anybody with fodder to sell and asking these people to contact them because of the urgent need for fodder. Yesterday I called on the Taoiseach to introduce some sort of emergency scheme to provide fodder, because many farmers are out of silage and cannot afford to buy in fodder. Their bank accounts are overdrawn and grass is not growing and they have no prospect of leaving cows out. Farmers are going through a tough time and the past two years have been like the straw that would break the camel's back. Spring is so bad this year that if we do not get a good summer, it will be very easy to talk about what cattle will be left in this country. People will not have the confidence, finance or heart to keep a large stock of animals and feed them because of the roasting or burning they have got over the past two years. The past two years have been unbelievable. One could say it has been raining these two years.
The ground has never been as badly poached and damaged. Farmers have not had a chance to roll their land properly. Some places are completely waterlogged. Good land is after getting a hammering, not to mind the type of land owned by the people I represent. As the Minister knows, most of the farms where I come from are small and the ground is predominantly poor. We are facing a tremendously torturous time. It is very difficult for farmers who are trying to send youngsters to school and teenagers to college.
The arrival in the Chamber of the Minister for Finance reminds me of the point Deputy Mattie McGrath made about banks being extremely hard on the farming community. In that context, I would like to compliment organisations such as the Kerry Group, of which I have personal knowledge. To be fair, that group is standing with the farmers by extending lines of credit to them. It appreciates that the farming community, more than any other industry in Ireland, has a track record of always paying its way.