Fodder Crisis: Motion (Resumed) [Private Members]
The following motion was moved by Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív on Tuesday, 7 May 2013:
"That Dáil Éireann:
calls on the Government to make adequate financial supports available to assist those who cannot afford to feed their stock and also to transport fodder to this country from abroad;
fully recognises the major role agriculture plays in creating employment, generating economic activity and acting as a custodian of the countryside in Ireland;
appreciates the unique vulnerability and exposure of agriculture to fluctuations in the weather and food markets;
records the ongoing hardship inflicted upon farming communities across Ireland due to the fodder crisis that has been evident in the country since last July and the sacrifices farming families have made to protect their livestock;
acknowledges the devastating consequences that the aftermath of the fodder crisis will have on countless farms and the pressing need for the Government to put in place a structure to address their exceptional circumstances;
criticises the complete and utter failure of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine to address the growing crisis in its early stages in 2012, which has directly led to the devastating impact it is currently having on farming families;
calls on the Government to establish a special unit in the Department to oversee and co-ordinate efforts among Government Departments, agencies, co-ops, marts and financial institutions to tackle the crisis and its long-term consequences;
further calls on the Government to empower this special unit to keep fodder and credit supplies under review with fail-safe measures to ensure that such a crisis does not emerge again; and
exhorts the financial institutions and the Department to reach a sustained agreement to ensure an adequate supply of credit to farmers during times of acute supply and market pressures."
Debate resumed on amendment No. 1:
"To delete all words after "Dáil Éireann" and substitute the following:
"acknowledges the very difficult situation which has been facing farmers in light of the fodder shortage caused by unseasonal weather and the resulting delay of grass growth;
notes the fact that efforts have been on-going since last September to alleviate the fodder situation after a poor summer, through Teagasc, the Farm Animal Welfare Advisory Council and the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine's emergency animal welfare system and the fact that the delayed spring has unfortunately elevated this issue to a more serious level in recent weeks;
recognises the on-going financial assistance and advice being provided to farmers through the Farm Animal Welfare Advisory Council's early warning system and helpline, which has dealt with approximately 550 calls to date;
notes the introduction of a €1 million Government transport subsidy scheme, which has to date resulted in approximately 600 loads of fodder being imported into the country;
acknowledges that the Government extended this scheme until 10 May in consideration of continuing challenges facing farmers;
recognises the significant efforts made by co-ops to source and import fodder, to reduce costs to farmers by providing credit flexibility and interest free credit for fertiliser;
acknowledges the additional initiatives introduced by the farming organisations, the Irish Dairy Board and other organisations to assist farmers in recent days;
notes that the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine and his Department have met and been in regular contact with the banks, co-ops and others in the industry to identify any particular problem areas or difficulties facing farmers as the fodder situation continues;
notes the role being played by the advisory services to date and their ongoing advice to farmers in dealing with the provision of adequate fodder stocks for the winter ahead; and
recognises that outstanding farm payments are being processed as quickly as possible to assist farmers in financial difficulty; following the issue of approximately 1,500 agri-environmental options scheme, AEOS, payments over the last ten days, close to a further 600 AEOS payments valued at just over €1.3 million are expected to issue within the next week."
- (Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine)
I propose to share time with Deputies Luke 'Ming' Flanagan, Mattie McGrath, and Healy-Rae. I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Private Members' motion on the farming and fodder crisis of the past 12 months. There is no doubt the farming community has been going through a difficult time, particularly smaller and medium-sized farmers, who have been under particular pressure due to the weather and the lack of fodder. The transport subsidies and emergency aid provided by the Department and the Minister are welcome but the scheme should be extended. It is supposed to finish at the end of the week but it needs to be extended into next week and beyond. I ask the Minister to fast-track various farm payments due, such as the single farm payments, disadvantaged area payments, the agri-environmental options scheme payments and REPS payments. I ask the Minister to bring forward payments and fast-track them to ensure farmers, particularly the smaller medium-sized farmers under particular financial pressure, can be helped.
I draw the attention of the Minister to the difficulty we have had for the past 12 months. The fact that it has run into May means the fodder situation could be compromised for the rest of this year and the spring of next year. I support the call for the Government to establish a special unit in the Department to oversee and co-ordinate efforts on this, particularly in respect of the future situation, which will be compromised by a lack of fodder and a reduction in silage making and haymaking as a result of the weather.
I welcome the Private Members' motion from Fianna Fáil and I will support it. All Members from rural areas have been contacted by farmers about this. Farmers are in serious distress. Some people who contacted me reckoned this was predictable and that something should have been planned but it was not. When the money came for the transportation of fodder, it was welcomed but farmers are still contacting me and saying the problem has not yet been solved. One issue raised by farmers is the knock-on effect this will have on fodder for next year, given that many have animals out on ground they would otherwise have used for silage.
We know the reasons why this happened, namely bad weather conditions, but we have a localised condition in the Shannon Callows area in south Roscommon. This needs to be dealt with when one considers Food Harvest 2020. If we want to achieve the aims of Food Harvest 2020, we must maximise the amount of fodder available. That will only happen in the Shannon Callows if we get the National Parks and Wildlife Service and put it back in its fundamentalist environmental box, which is spreading the wilderness idea around Ireland. We are slowly but surely turning Ireland back into a wilderness. Silting from Bord na Móna is blocking up the channels of the Shannon, which leads to flooding. In one place, an island has formed over the past ten years and caused a blockage. When farmers went to the National Parks and Wildlife Service and asked for the island to be removed, they were told it was protected. How was it protected if it did not exist a decade before?
This is what I mean by wilderness. Are we heading in that direction? That might be grand for environmentalism in countries that have masses of land, such as the United States and other big countries, but we do not have that. We have a limited amount of land. We must work out who we are trying to protect with these policies. I was told by Michael Silke of the IFA that the corncrake has been wiped out in this area because of the National Parks and Wildlife Service. At the same time, it is affecting farmers' ability to get fodder. If we want Food Harvest 2020 to be achieved, we will have to maximise the fodder available and put the National Parks and Wildlife Service back into its fundamentalist, environmentalist box.
First, I compliment Deputy Ó Cuív on tabling this motion. The Deputy understands farming intimately. He has been at various places throughout the country in the last year debating other issues, such as CAP and not getting agreement on it. One can see who is getting the big single farm payments. It might be embarrassing for some of the Members on the Government benches to look at the figures. They can be seen online.
The Minister has made a hames of this. I have always had great respect for him and still have but the Government's strategic infrastructure committee should have been assembled long ago, not as a result of this motion. It is six months too late. We had ample time and the Minister was warned about it. His Department knew about it. Where are the animal rights people now? The number of fallen animals has increased by 40% in some places. Knackeries cannot cope with what is happening. The Department has been asleep. I am not referring to the officials who are present with the Minister. This is a national emergency. There will be a knock-on effect for the next number of years.
We are trying to get out of this deep recession. Speaking on the radio and at a committee meeting last week, the Minister told us that the banks are ready to lend. They are not lending. The Minister should stop the inspections and put the inspectors into the banks. They could accompany farmers to see the answers they receive after they fill in the forms. They are told to go away. Most farmers cannot afford to borrow anyway. I compliment the IFA and the co-operatives that have got involved. Indeed, Coolmore Stud in my constituency exported hay to the west.
However, all of this is too little, too late. I attended the CRH annual general meeting this morning and I appealed for the company to give something. It has received so much from the farmers and the farmers are the only people keeping the company going now. The Minister can laugh and joke if he wishes with his new colleague, Deputy McEntee, but the CRH would not even discuss the matter. There is no sense of reality. The Government's sub-committee on infrastructure includes the Taoiseach, the Minister for Finance and the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine. It should tell our European colleagues what is happening. All the countries' flags are displayed in the front hall. Is the Minister going to wait until all the farmers are lying down and finished? The Minister has missed the boat. He could have asked those European colleagues to help. This is a crisis. Get rid of all the red tape in Europe. We are told we cannot do this and that because of finance or because of Europe. The Minister should tell the Europeans this is a national crisis. The Minister must pinch himself and wake up to this, not give fine words and nice speeches. It is too little, too late.
The animal rights Deputies should go and see the animals. No farmer wishes to see animals suffering. The Minister has missed the boat on this. He should go back to the IFA and support it. I understand the Minister has extended the application date to 9 June, but that is a feeble effort. He should call a meeting of the national emergency committee and take real action, not token action. What happens when there is flooding or any other events? Any time there is an emergency in the country a national committee is usually called to meet. The Government Members do not even know that it is, which tells us how badly off agriculture is.
I compliment Deputy Ó Cuív for bringing this important matter before the House and I thank the Technical Group for allowing me to use some of its speaking time.
Many months ago I raised the fodder crisis in this Chamber. It was before many others spoke about it. I recall asking the Taoiseach about it one day. He gave a short and sharp response but it was not an answer. Later that evening the Minister announced the scheme to bring hay to this country. I am convinced that when the Taoiseach responded to me, he did not know the Minister was arranging the scheme to subsidise bringing hay to the country. If he did, he would have said it that morning. There was no cohesion in the Government. I am generally complimentary about the Minister but I am not happy with the way he has handled this situation. This situation does not just affect us now, it will be compounded next October, November, December and next year. We are too far behind-----
The Deputy might give some suggestions to resolve the situation.
I have made a number of suggestions to the Minister and I will make some now. First, at a recent Oireachtas committee meeting I asked the Minister to stop farm inspections for a period of four or five weeks. The Minister said he was compelled by Europe to carry out inspections. I checked that and found the Minister was incorrect. There must be a percentage of inspections over a 12 month period, but the Minister was not told to carry them out in April, May or June. He must carry out the inspections over a 12 month period. The Minister could stop inspections, as I asked him to do, for a period of four or five weeks. That would be a help. The last thing a farmer needs is to have an inspection taking place on his farm at a time when he is under critical stress-----
The inspectors are taking account of that.
It is not polite of the Minister to interrupt. I would not dare to interrupt him. I hope he will afford me the same courtesy.
The Minister said he wants suggestions. I urge him to do two things. One is to stop farm inspections and the second is to do something about the people who are providing the meal. He should ask them to acknowledge that we are in a crisis and reduce the price they are charging. That would be a major help. The Minister has the influence to do that and I believe he has the ability to do it. I ask the Minister to take those two actions as soon as possible. He must stop farm inspections for five weeks and talk to the grain merchants to try to reduce the price of rations. They are two simple suggestions and I ask the Minister not to dismiss them.
I am sharing time with Deputies John O'Mahony, Michelle Mulherin, Tom Barry, Heather Humphreys, Seán Kyne, Patrick O'Donovan, Michael McNamara, Pat Deering and Helen McEntee.
I am very concerned about the irresponsible nature of some of the comments from the Opposition last night and this evening on this motion. It is a serious topic but I believe it is being used for political purposes in some cases. Some of the comments are downright wrong. I acknowledge the work of departmental officials and the Minister in providing a targeted response to a serious issue. The transport subsidy scheme is structured so that the money is used effectively. A large grandiose system such as that sought by Deputy Ó Cuív would eventually deliver money, although I do not know how, in July or August when it is not needed. The money being provided now is targeted and effective. It is bringing in the fodder that is needed now.
The emergency welfare telephone number is available and the Department is on hand. There is no need for any animals to starve. I encourage any farmer who is in difficulty to go to the local district veterinary office, DVO, Teagasc or their local adviser about it. I note the contribution of the co-operatives and the banks and the flexibility they have shown in recent weeks. Today, Professor Gerry Boyle of Teagasc came to the meeting of the internal Fine Gael committee on agriculture to discuss what I believe is the bigger issue. We have got to grips with the issue at present but the future is of far greater concern. Now is not the time for farmers to scrimp on spreading fertiliser. Teagasc needs to say that. The banks are freeing up money and interest free capital is being provided by the co-operatives. We have told Teagasc of the need for advisers to get to the farmers who are not approaching Teagasc and seeking advice. Those farmers must be approached proactively in the livestock marts and elsewhere so we will avoid a crisis in the autumn. Hopefully, we will have a good summer but we must take action now. I am pleased that is happening.
I commend the Minister and his officials on the work they have done on this so far.
We are all aware the fodder crisis has come to a head in the last number of weeks. It is a difficult time for the farming community throughout the country. It has been stressful for all involved. Farmers have watched their fodder diminish while the weather conditions were harsh and there was little prospect of grass growth.
However, because this matter has been in the headlines in recent weeks, everyone is aware of it. I pay tribute to the Minister for his hands-on approach, which his officials, the various agencies, Teagasc and all the co-operatives adopted. There was a spirit of teamwork, togetherness and co-operation. It was truly remarkable. If we were honest, we would all admit to having seen this at local level in our constituencies. I saw it in Mayo. It was a case of farmer helping farmer, which demonstrated a sense of community and togetherness above and beyond the call of duty.
The idea of paying for the transport of fodder, thus reducing the cost to the farmer, was an immediate and most effective way of passing on a direct benefit to the farmer within a few days of the announcement of the €1 million package. I welcome the extension of the initiative. It is being reviewed constantly, the idea being that whatever needs to be done will be done. Emergency animal welfare assistance is also in place. Calls are coming through and the emergency is being dealt with. The knock-on effects are such that what happens from now on will be important. The lack of funds among farmers is being met through ongoing contact between the Minister and financial institutions. This is important. The co-operatives have offered interest-free credit. Connacht Gold, in my constituency, invited farmers to contact it with a view to stating what is available. Even in the immediate aftermath of this crisis, which seems to have been abating in recent days, it will be important to have the same spirit of togetherness, led by the Minister. It is in this way that the problem will be addressed successfully.
In the past couple of months, we have witnessed tremendous stress being placed on farmers, who must cope with an unprecedented fodder shortage while trying to feed their animals. If we are to tell the story truthfully, we will acknowledge that it is not just the story of the distress caused when the grass, whose growth we all take for granted, did not grow; it is also the story of great camaraderie and resilience among farmers helping fellow farmers in need. We must acknowledge the dynamism of farming organisations, the work of co-operatives and, in many cases, the understanding by banks of the crisis farmers have been facing. Above all, there is a can-do Minister. We must acknowledge the initiatives of the Department, with its early-warning system and investment of €1 million in the transport scheme to defray the cost of importing fodder so that co-operatives do not have to pass on the cost to farmers, along with the work of Teagasc and the Farm Animal Welfare Advisory Council.
While all the scientists agree that global warming is happening, they may disagree about its causes. We know there is climate change and that it is not just the Third World or developing countries that are being affected. We have witnessed at first hand the effect of the severe winter and a previous bad summer. We have also witnessed what occurs when our natural resource of grass does not actually grow. Owing to these phenomena, we must realise, while bearing in mind the global context and our place in the global village, that we are not immune. We must consider how we can adapt and be flexible in respect of growing grass and meeting fodder needs and targets under Food Harvest 2020, which require the pooling of know-how in addressing environmental concerns. Education is a key response and allows us to compensate for and mitigate against the effects of climate change. Teagasc, to which Deputy Heydon referred, definitely has an appetite for and track record in the delivery of education. Most immediately, it is focusing on getting the most out of the grass that I am thankful is beginning to grow, such that farmers might be able to make provision for fodder this year and in the coming winter. In the longer term, we must consider under-utilised land - land that is not being cultivated to produce grass in the way we know it can.
I welcome the payment made to 1,500 farmers in the past ten days under the AEOS. In my area, the west, where people rely on the disadvantaged area payment, farmers should be given the option of receiving one quarter of that payment now. Not every farmer is in the AEOS or REPS. Some farmers are at the end of their tether in regard to the co-operation of co-operatives and banks. I ask the Minister to consider that.
I congratulate the Minister on his swift action. He was present with me when the first load of fodder came into the country. We discussed the matter at length. It was the Minister's idea to pay for the transport. He was completely on top of his game. The arrival of the first load was a glad day for many farmers but it was also a very sad and poignant day. It is sad that Ireland, which aspires to reach a target of feeding 50 million people, had to import fodder for cattle in an emergency.
We have stocking rate and slurry storage requirements but we probably need to consider our fodder storage requirement. What occurred cannot be allowed to happen again. It displays the need for the tillage sector, which provides the indigenous fodder that reduces our exposure to imports. I have been conscious of this for a long time.
Let me remind the House of a few figures while tempering my remarks a little. I remind the House of the 1 million tonnes of sugar beet and 200,000 tonnes of sugar that Fianna Fáil threw away. While the party supports the reintroduction of sugar beet farming, it must realise it got rid of it. The fodder crisis displays the stark loss of the sugar industry. We lost 30,000 tonnes of beet pulp nuts. We lost wet pulp, pressed pulp and the tops and tails that went to the west. The Fianna Fáil Members should ask any of their constituents about this. I am tired of telling people that the fodder that was given out by the sugar industry was vital to our economy. Nobody knew that the crisis would happen so dramatically until now. I hope the great injustice represented by the closure of the sugar industry will be addressed next year. The Minister has done fabulous work in coming to an agreement which, I hope, will result in the reintroduction of the sugar quotas in 2017. This point cannot be ignored. It is timely for Fianna Fáil to make an apology for closing the sugar industry. It would be very welcome because the closure caused considerable financial distress, hardship and worry among the many beet farmers across the country.
I commend Dairygold, especially Jim Woulfe and Gerry O’Sullivan, on its tireless work in bringing in load upon load of hay, amounting to almost 400 loads thus far. The company worked closely with the Minister. The investment made was the best €1 million spent by this country in a long time.
I acknowledge the extremely difficult time that many farmers have been experiencing due to the ongoing bad weather over the past 18 months. As a Deputy for Cavan-Monaghan, where farming plays a crucial role in the local economy, I have seen at first hand the impact of the current fodder shortage. I have met many farmers in regard to the matter. This has been a very stressful time for them and their families. The establishment of the transport subsidy scheme has greatly reduced the cost of imported fodder for farmers. The scheme has made a real difference to many farmers and has been most welcome.
The fodder crisis has required a co-ordinated approach. The one point that stood out is how everybody came together. I include the Minister, his Department, millers, merchants, co-operatives and farming organisations. I commend them but must also afford a special mention to all the farmers who supported each other by giving spare fodder to those who needed it. It is this great community spirit that gets us through difficult times such as these.
I compliment the Minister and his Department on all their efforts to date. While the current problem is being dealt with in a very practical way, a long-term strategy is needed. I should be grateful if the Minister would take the issues I raise into consideration. There has been overstocking on farms for some time. Commentators in the media and Teagasc have been advising farmers to increase their numbers of stock.
However, with increased stock numbers comes the need for an overall plan to ensure sustainability and profitability. Teagasc needs to look at preparing realistic and deliverable plans for farmers on an individual basis to allow them to develop and increase their outputs on a sustainable footing. It is welcome that our live export trade has been reopened. I ask that every effort be made and support be given to aggressively build on this market opportunity to export our cattle. This is an important outlet to reduce surplus cattle numbers.
Under the EU water directives, there are restrictions on the amount of phosphate that can be used in soil, which means our soil fertility has been reduced considerably. We are not getting the benefit of nitrogen if phosphate levels are not at optimum level for growth in Irish conditions. Is the Minister satisfied that current regulations take account of Irish soil types and climatic conditions and will he consider asking Teagasc to carry out a full review of the relevant data and making a case to the European Union that this directive be reviewed to take account of the Irish situation? We also need to address the issue of calendar farming enforced under the nitrates directive and seek to have changes made to reflect the changing pattern of Irish weather conditions.
I commend the Minister on his, as always, prompt action when a crisis presents.
I commend the Minister and his officials for their response to this crisis. There is no point in giving money to farmers to buy fodder if there is no fodder available. What was needed was fodder. I never thought we would see the day when we would be importing fodder from the United Kingdom and France. However, that is what was required. I congratulate the Minister, the Department, the co-ops, hauliers and the Irish Farmers Association on getting behind communities and delivering what was needed. The Minister has delivered on what the co-ops asked him to do, namely, to fund a transport subsidy scheme which I am delighted to note has worked. As stated by other speakers, we have received excellent value for money in terms of the amount of money spent in this regard.
Other speakers spoke about contingency planning. I agree that there is a need for contingency planning on farms in advance of next winter. We do not know if we will have an early winter or a late spring. Farmers will need to ensure, based on the stock they believe they will be carrying next winter, that they will have sufficient fodder. Thankfully, beef prices are strong this year. As such, farmers who had planned were able to sell off stock over the winter, thus lessening the impact on them of the fodder crisis.
The phrase "a normal grass growing year" is often mentioned. I am not sure what that means anymore. We have had some strange weather in recent years. As stated by Deputy Michelle Mulherin, we do not know if the erratic weather we have experienced is due to climate change and so on. While it is right that Teagasc and farmers have pushed out the boundaries in maximising grass production in the past few years - farmers in certain parts of the country have pushed out the boundaries for grazing to February - there is a need for contingency planning for the situations that might arise.
The effects on future farming patterns cannot be underestimated. The effects on cow fertility could be severe. Fodder produced last year was of poor quality owing to the long winter. Lameness and a late spring will also have a knock-on effect on fertility, breeding cycles, calving intervals, milk production and impact on some farmers' ability to expand in coming years owing to added costs. That is a concern.
It needs to be acknowledged that farmers may be unable to meet disadvantaged areas scheme eligibility criteria in 2013 as the fodder crisis may have led to the earlier sale of animals and higher mortality rates, resulting in their having low stocking rates. It is important that this be taken into account by the Department when adjudicating on DAS payments this year.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate. Like other speakers, my county of Limerick has been badly affected by the fodder crisis. I have met the farming organisations during the past few weeks and know that they were keen to ensure this issue would not be turned into a political football with which points could be scored. They also wanted the efforts being made by the co-ops, marts, the banks and, in particular, the Department to be acknowledged. I pay tribute to the Minister, Deputy Simon Coveney, for meeting at 11 p.m. on bank holiday Monday night with representatives of the farming organisations in County Limerick to hear at first hand exactly what was happening, in particular, in the west and south of the county where intense rainfall, heavy soil quality and stocking levels had contributed to a perfect storm in this regard.
I also pay tribute to the leadership provided by the co-ops, particularly Dairygold in County Kerry and Mr. Jim Woulfe who I believe has been to the fore in trying to ensure this problem is alleviated. From the outset, nobody was asking for money to be thrown at it. What they wanted was a co-ordinated campaign to solve an immediate problem, namely, the feeding of animals. In fairness to the Minister, this has happened. Some 730 lorries of fodder have been imported thus far and a further 170 are due. This means some 2.3 million animals will be fed under the scheme initiated by the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine.
It is welcome that AEOS payments are being processed faster. This will make a tangible difference. Another issue which I raised in the House last week and ask the Minister to relay to his colleague, the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Joan Burton, is the heavy reliance in certain parts of the country, particularly in west Limerick, on the farm assist scheme, which will undoubtedly cause problems into the future. Like previous speakers, I would welcome the putting in place by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine of an insurance package to ensure, as stated by Deputy Barry, in the event of this happening again, that we will be in a much stronger position. There is no doubt but that we must confront the reality that our climate is changing. There are more prolonged periods of heavier rainfall, which is having an impact on food production.
I again compliment the efforts of the Minister in dealing with this and other crises since his appointment as Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine.
Like previous speakers, I commend the Minister for his reaction to the fodder crisis and, in particular, the introduction of the fodder transport subsidy scheme, an innovative, important and necessary measure. I also thank him for extending the scheme to 10 May and his clarification that fodder purchased in advance of that date will be covered by the scheme. That, too, is an important measure.
Crises of this scale require a novel approach and for people to work together. Nowhere in the country was this more on display than at Shannon Airport a couple of weekends ago. I commend the new management of Shannon Airport and Clare IFA for their work in this regard. Members may not be aware that over one weekend more than 1,000 bales were harvested on the land bank surrounding Shannon Airport and distributed by the IFA, through its networks, to farmers across County Clare, many of whom were in dire need of it. It was encouraging in these difficult times to see people engaged in work from which they received no benefit but which helped somebody else. I commend Clare IFA for its work in that regard. Similarly, when the IFA involved itself in the task of gritting roads, it did so at a very busy time and for no reward other than helping neighbours.
That said, the fodder crisis this year is almost over. We now need to worry about what will happen next year. I know few farmers in east Clare which was not as badly affected as west Clare who have closed land at this point to have silage next year. Ordinarily a first cut would be made in in a couple of weeks time, but farmers simply have not had an opportunity to close land yet. Barring a miracle, it is almost inevitable that there will be another fodder crisis next year. Therefore, we need to start planning for it now.
I commend and thank Fianna Fáil for raising this issue. It is important that we discuss it. That said, I do not agree on the need for the establishment of a special unit in the Department to oversee and co-ordinate activitiy in this regard. The days of special units have come and gone. Many of the previously established special units delivered little. Deputy Simon Coveney has the honour of being Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine. He needs to add this issue to his many priorities and ensure we will be prepared for next year. As Deputy Seán Kyne and other speakers mentioned, including on the Opposition benches, there is every possibility that next year there will be more stock in the country than there will be fodder for, particularly if weather conditions are not ideal.
I commend the Minister on the initiative of getting live exports moving again, with boats leaving Ireland with live exports. As Deputy Kyne said, beef prices were relatively high through the winter. No farmer anticipates his cattle are going to starve and, therefore, some were not able to plan, but for those who could afford the meal - Deputy Healy-Rae alluded to the increasing prices for meal - and were able to plan there were high beef prices. One of the few things the Minister has at his disposal to keep the beef factories honest or to keep them on a straight line and to make sure they do not pull prices at every available opportunity is a proper live export trade. I am glad he has ensured our live export trade is commencing again and that boats with live exports will leave Ireland. This ensures there will be not only one avenue for our beef, that of the processors, but that there will be a second option available to farmers.
Like previous speakers, I am delighted to have this opportunity to speak on this important motion. It is important to recognise that it has been a difficult winter and fall for every farmer in the country. It is also important to recognise that this has affected every farmer, big and small. The problem began last year when we had a particularly bad summer and no quality or quantity of silage or hay was made. It is also important to remember that this is not a money issue, as was suggested by some people in the past. Money will not buy fodder that is not there. It is a fodder crisis, not a money crisis.
I compliment the Minister in particular on his hands-on approach to this issue in galvanising and making sure that all the stakeholders involved were brought together, be it the co-operatives, those involved in farm modernisation, the banks or hauliers, to ensure that everybody worked in conjunction with one another. It is important that happened to ensure we got fodder from around Europe, be it from England or France, to ensure cattle were fed.
As Deputy McNamara rightly said, the actual crisis is nearly over at this stage. This morning we could almost see the grass growing. Three important points need to be made as we look forward to next year. It is important that fertiliser is not spared on the ground in order to ensure that as much grass as possible is harvested for hay and silage in the future. It is important that Teagasc would get directly involved to ensure that the management of grass is organised in a proper way to ensure plenty of fodder will be available for the future. Third, it is important that farmers are educated about the amount of fodder that will be required to ensure we have plenty of stocks for the future. Unlike previous years when most farmers would have had an extra supply of stock left over, that will not happen this year and therefore we will have to build up reserves.
Looking across at those on the Fianna Fáil benches, the Fianna Fáil hypocrisy never ceases to amaze me. It was only a few years ago when Fianna Fáil thought very little of agriculture. Its members concentrated on bricks and mortar but now agriculture is becoming important again. The people seated across from me sat around the Cabinet table and voted to do away with the sugar industry, as Deputy Boyd Barrett mentioned earlier, an industry that would have been a big help in trying to ensure we would not have had this current crisis.
We promised to bring it back.
I compliment all those involved in ensuring we have a proper solution to this matter.
I call Deputy Helen McEntee. I am privileged to be in the Chair as I understand this is her maiden speech.
As it is my first time to speak in the House, I take this opportunity, first, to thank the people of Meath East for allowing me the privilege and the honour of representing them in Dáil Éireann. I also take this time to acknowledge the work and the effort that was put in by my Fine Gael colleagues, the Fine Gael members and also by my family and my campaign team in getting me elected to this House. I am honoured to be following in my father's footsteps. I would also like to thank the Minister, Deputy Coveney, for his support throughout the campaign. He very generously gave of his time on two separate occasions to meet members of the farming community and Meath farmers. The amount of attention and dedication he showed towards them in ensuring their views and opinions were heard on various different matters has not gone unnoticed.
Having grown up on a farm, having been part of a farming family and having worked in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine with my Dad for more than two years, it is only appropriate that as I speak for the first time in this House it is on such an important issue and on this issue in particular. The fodder shortage is a national crisis and one that unfortunately Meath East has not escaped. Meath occupies an area of more than 230,000 hectares of which 180,000 are used for agricultural purposes only. We have a long-standing reputation for having green fields and pastures, many of which are capable of supporting a wide variety of agricultural activities but unfortunately due to the bad weather, the bad winter and the cold spring, our roads are not the only places that have taken a beating in the past few months. I acknowledge that the weather has got a little better. We have seen a little growth, even around my house the grass has grown, but farmers are putting their livestock out and any bit of growth there has been disappears straightaway.
I want to acknowledge the efforts that have been made by the farming community, the farming co-operatives and Teagasc. They have come together and worked on this issue. They have shown a great deal of solidarity but the Department's intervention has been needed and it was sought and given. I hope the announcement by the Minister, Deputy Coveney, that a further 170 loads of hay and silage that will be imported into the country next week on top of the 600 loads that have already come in will provide access to fodder and assist as many farmers as possible. The extension of the imported fodder under the transport fodder scheme with assistance from the transport subsidy has already assisted many farmers especially in County Meath and it will provide further relief for farmers. Unfortunately it is hard not to get caught out with the weather in Ireland. It is about as predictable as the national lottery numbers.
I commend the Minister, Deputy Coveney, and his Department on their quick reaction to this problem. He has repeatedly said that any farmer who has had a problem in accessing funds, in talking to their banks or their neighbours or who feel that they cannot cope can contact the Department and any of the other organisations which will help them. No animal should be allowed to starve in this instance and I would hate to see that happen unnecessarily. I have no doubt that the measures that have been taken to tackle this problem will have a knock-on effect later in the year in case we have bad weather again.
I congratulate Deputy McEntee and look forward to more of her contributions.
I join in congratulating Deputy McEntee on her first speech. I am sure it will be the first of many contributions she will make in this House.
I thank Deputy Ó Cuív for the amount of work he put into this motion. He gave it a good deal of consideration. He has met with the IFA about the serious situation, that of the fodder crisis, that is facing us. I noted that the IFA representatives who met in Galway last Monday called for an immediate extension of the transport subsidy scheme to deal with the ongoing fallout of the fodder crisis. They made the point that extra feedstuffs were estimated to cost €200 million. They also made the point that farmers will have to cope with various knock-on costs such as the decline in the quality of animal being produced.
It is important that we learn from the experiences of the past few months. One of the main objectives is to ensure that there will be no repeat of the fodder crisis later on. Farmer experts have talked about this. An issue that has arisen in my constituency of Galway East is the question of farmers losing money because of the extra spending on feedstuffs. I have been reminded that meal subsidies were introduced as far back as 1974 when Mark Clinton was Minister for Agriculture in the Fine Gael-led Government and in 1989 the then Fianna Fáil-led Government brought in what was known as meal vouchers. I suggest to the Minister that such vouchers should be considered for people who are in great difficulty at the moment. Above all, there is an urgent need for co-operation with the Government agencies, financial institutions and suppliers to help struggling farmers overcome the current challenge. Deputy Ó Cuív suggested the establishment of a €10 million relief fund and the creation of a special unit within the Department to take the lead in addressing the crisis.
The unit he proposed should also review the supply level of fodder and financial credit to ensure that the crisis never occurs again. There are particular difficulties in the west of Ireland. I am not just putting on the poor mouth. Someone said the west is a different country. Deputy Ó Cuív and I might not agree that east Galway is a different country from west Galway but that could be the case. Our grass growth is four to six weeks behind. I was glad to see news reports of fodder arriving in Maam Cross and Clifden in west Galway. There is need for similar action in other parts of the country. At the co-ops in east Galway there are waiting lists of people in need of fodder. I checked this today. I hope that this can be addressed. If the co-ops, which are doing great work, are having difficulty and have to order more feedstuffs I hope that the farming organisations will come forward and do as they have done until now and work together to provide that fodder.
Another practical proposal that has been made concerns the grants due for payment which I hope will be paid as quickly as possible. That is a practical way to help with cash flow which is so crucial. It was suggested last night that Teagasc would make free advice available. I hope that will happen. I am glad to see that the IFA has created a €1 million relief fund and that the dairy board has established a €2 million fund for redistribution to dairy farmers. I compliment the farming organisations and all the people involved in agriculture in rural Ireland on giving so much help. Neighbours are helping each other out and the traditional Irish meitheal is very much to the fore. Our plea to the Minister is to extend the transport fodder scheme. That is a very practical proposal. We need proper planning for the future. Much more needs to be done. Will the IFA and other farming organisations help out in the spirit of the meitheal by ordering more bales? The co-ops in east Galway and in the west of Ireland have played their part. Connacht Gold was mentioned yesterday evening. Arrabawn has also helped. It has branches in many towns in my constituency, Mountbellew, Killimer, Kilconnell, Clonberne and Athenry and we have a great deal of contact with Athlone which is not too far away and is one of the major branches. All these branches are working together as they have to do because there is a waiting list for the provision of fodder. We hope that more food can be ordered and that the IFA and other farming organisations can help.
The price per bale or tonne of feed is also very important because we must have prices that are sustainable and some of the products are quite dear. The cash flow difficulties must be addressed. The promise of €50 million in credit from the AIB is very welcome but it is very important to have flexibility in finance because this is an industry that is exposed to weather and markets. It is very distressing to read the figures for fallen animals and the 26% increase, if that is the correct figure, in the number of animal deaths on farms in the first quarter of this year compared with last year. There is great sadness among farm families that this has happened. There are animal welfare problems but also huge losses. These losses come after very cold weather during which there were other losses, particularly in Donegal where there was great distress.
The agri-environmental options scheme, AEOS, 1 and 2 and the rural environment protection scheme, REPS, payments are most important. A case was made about the disadvantaged areas scheme because it affects the west of Ireland and it has been proposed to reverse the stocking density requirements under that scheme, which I hope the Minister will consider. We need every extra blade of grass and we should not be considering higher stocking densities this year when the situation is so serious for our farming community. While Ireland holds the Presidency of the European Union and the Minister is chairing many of the meetings he should work hard to bring forward payments and to deal particularly with the stocking density under the disadvantaged areas scheme. I hope that in considering Deputy Ó Cuív's motion the Minister will see that much more needs to be done. Everyone in the farming community is delighted that some work is being done but much more needs to be done and we must work hard to ensure that every grant is paid in time and if possible that moneys are brought forward as happens with the single farm payment.
I am glad to have the opportunity to contribute to this debate tonight because it is of immense importance to all of us who represent rural constituencies. The farming and agrifood sector contributes almost €24 billion to the economy, supporting up to 300,000 jobs but in my constituency there are 5,991 farms averaging 34.5 ha. Of them 4,945 are cattle farms and of those 3,847 earn less than €25,000 per annum. The issue we are discussing tonight has a significant impact on my constituency and I am glad to have the opportunity to speak on behalf of a very large section of my constituency in County Limerick. The Minister asked my colleague for suggestions to continue to address the problem. I would first counsel the Minister to avoid complacency at all costs. Any notion that we are through the worst of this must be knocked on the head. Last night there was a very heavy rainfall across the country and serious quantities of water washed off the land. We are in an era of real climate change. There is a reluctance in this country to face up to the issues raised by climate change. The Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Phil Hogan, has kicked the can down the road.
Fianna Fáil kicked it down the road for ten years.
I grant that he has attended several high profile climate change conferences around the world which were publicised. We need a strategy to address climate change because it is for real.
My second suggestion concerns the EU solidarity fund. The Minister was quoted on RTE last week as having broached the subject with Commission officials and I think he said that they were rather un-enthusiastic about an application from Ireland. Is the Minister content to leave it at that or does he have some plan? The Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers Association, ICMSA, has circulated a table showing 30 previous occasions on which the solidarity fund made payments to member states especially on grounds of adverse weather conditions. It made one in 1999 to Greece for its raisin crop which was affected by adverse weather. The Minister might take the opportunity in his reply to tell us whether he intends to pursue that because it is worth considering and he might have a view.
I will not have an opportunity to reply to this debate but I did address this question last night.
He will get an opportunity to reply to the point in some forum, maybe not tonight.
My final suggestion relates to contingency planning for 2014. We do not know how this summer will pan out. Deputy Michael McNamara said that the worst is over for this year but we do not know that.
Will farmers have two silage cuts this year? We simply do not know. A long-term contingency plan must be put in place to deal with this situation as it will reach far into next year. Fianna Fáil has suggested the establishment of a €10 million emergency fund. I acknowledge the Minister established the transport scheme, funded it to the tune of €1 million and extended its deadline. Were he to set up our proposed emergency fund, it would give a degree of security to farmers.
Mention was made of establishing a special unit in the Department to co-ordinate the various stakeholders involved. This proposal has merit. It might be there already in an ad hoc capacity but it would be helpful to co-ordinate dealing with the banks for example. We cannot take the banks at face value, which we learned at our peril unfortunately. The Department needs to keep an eye on the banks regarding their commitments to provide adequate credit lines to affected farmers. If credit lines are not available, as we all know, business will not operate.
I would appreciate if the Minister took my suggestions on board. I compliment my colleague, Deputy Ó Cuív, on using our Private Members’ time to raise this issue. It is of genuine and immense importance to many people across the country. The 300,000 jobs which rely on the agrifood sector have to be supported and must have that degree of certainty.
I also compliment Deputy McEntee on her maiden speech in the Dáil this evening. I was glad to be here to listen to it. I wish her well in her political career. Admittedly, I was wondering what was afoot when I saw a large crowd around the Minister in the Chamber. I was quite impressed that he had so much support on his benches. Alas, we now know the large attendance was for Deputy McEntee’s maiden speech.
There is plenty of solidarity in this party.
I recall after the general election when the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Phil Hogan, attended the Chamber, he always had a big support group around him on the backbenches.
Alas, when he comes in here these days, he is alone. At least the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine has one Member beside him which means he is doing marginally better.
It is because no one on this side wanted to listen to Deputy Niall Collins.
Looking at Deputy Doyle sitting next to the Minister, is this the new agriculture ministerial line-out?
I will neither condemn nor congratulate the Minister on how he is dealing with the difficulties farmers are experiencing. Instead, I want to put some practical suggestions to him.
We all know there is no fodder reserve left in this country and we are eating into next winter’s reserve. Under the nitrates directive, farmers are required to limit the amount of nitrogen from livestock manure that is applied on their lands to no more than 170 kg per hectare. If that were raised to 200 kg per hectare, it would lead to more intensive farming and allow farmers to gather more fodder for the year ahead. I know there would be difficulties in getting such a derogation but, regardless of what happens between now and next November, there is a fodder deficit that must be tackled. Even if we have a normal winter, next year will be difficult too. Will the Minister examine a derogation under the nitrates directive without any change in application forms and so forth?
We also know the nitrates directive puts down significant obstacles in intensive farming because of the P and K restrictions. Spreading nitrogen is one matter. However, one will not get any benefit from it if there is not a proper balance in the soil. Will the Minister also examine this suggestion?
The cut-off date for the spreading of nitrogen is traditionally 15 September. Due to crop rotation and planning, if it were announced now that the spreading date was to be extended, farmers might be in a position to plant root crops after the harvest in August and September for the year ahead. This would assist in alleviating the difficulties that farmers will inevitably face in 2013 and 2014.
The Minister will know from his constituency that farmers are now outbidding each other trying to rent additional lands for planting fodder or silage. This is raising the cost of renting land to €300 an acre in some places. That is simply not sustainable in the short to medium term. However, the farmers are doing it of necessity because of their stocking densities and that they have no fodder reserve.
If the nitrates directive were revisited, it would give Ireland the opportunity to do what it does best which is to grow grass and harvest it for silage. This would address some of the problems we will be faced with next year.
I acknowledge farmers have assisted each other in a collegial way. The co-ops and the Department have done their best in dealing with the current difficulties we are facing. However, some audit system must be put in place in the Department to assess how much fodder will be built up over the next several months so that critical decisions can be made on whether to plant root crops after the grain harvest in August. Taking on these suggestions would give farmers the opportunity to plan ahead, particularly those who have high stock densities, no fodder reserves and are restricted by the nitrates directive to increase their fodder banks.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this important issue, an issue that is affecting farmers the length and breadth of the country. I commend my colleague, Deputy Ó Cuív, on giving Members on all sides of the House the opportunity to outline their concerns about how this fodder crisis has been handled heretofore. Many Members have commended the Minister on the role he has played in dealing with the crisis. I acknowledge that he did tackle it and organised the importation of fodder but it was somewhat belated. Having talked with members of the Irish Farming Association, IFA, and the ICMSA, the Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers Association, in my constituency, I know they were at their wits’ end over the past several months because of this fodder crisis. Neither were they happy with the Minister’s approach to it.
I noted many Government backbenchers spoke on this issue over the past two nights. When Opposition parties put down Private Members’ motions, very few Government Members will speak on them. The Government shared its speaking time with many of its backbench Deputies. I am sure they were getting it in the neck over the past number of months on how this crisis was being dealt with. These backbenchers were very quick to compliment the co-ops, the IFA and the various other groups which were to the fore in tackling the crisis. Unfortunately, the Minister’s role left much to be desired.
The agrifood sector contributes €24 billion to the national economy. It is an extremely important sector. The livestock sector has been badly hit by this crisis. Animal deaths in the first quarter of this year compared to those in 2012 have increased by 26%, a direct result of this crisis.
Other Members have welcomed the fact grass is beginning to grow. This is to be welcomed but it is outside everyone’s control. We cannot even blame the Minister for that.
The Deputy would try though.
The issue still remains that over the past several months farmers have incurred many costs they normally would not. They have had to purchase additional fodder and feed. These are costs that will remain even after the cattle are put back on the land.
What will the Minister do to help those farmers in extreme financial difficulty? Will he pledge to ensure that the agri-environment option scheme, AEOS, disadvantaged area aid and all the schemes administered through his Department will be fast-tracked to ensure the farmers get the financial support they need? Will he give that guarantee here this evening? Will he ensure that the banks comply with their promise to actively engage with and support the farming community at this time of pressure? We are all quick to run down the banks but I got a phone call during the week from the manager of the local AIB branch in Mullingar who read an article I wrote in the local paper. He told me that if anybody who comes to my constituency office is not getting fair play he wants to know about it so that he can have direct intervention. I welcome that, and I complimented him on being proactive in his approach because this is a serious problem, and I want to acknowledge that.
I take this opportunity to highlight another issue for the Minister. One of the most serious issues affecting farmers who come to my constituency clinic is the changes the Minister made to the farm assist programme. In the two previous budgets the amount of farm income being assessed increased from 70% to 85% and from 85% to 100%. Why has there been such a targeted approach to the less well-off farmers in our society?
Some previous speakers criticised us for not being proactive enough in respect of the agriculture sector. I would remind them that it was our colleague and former Minister, Deputy Brendan Smith, who produced Food Harvest 2020, a document the Minister likes to claim as his own. If the Taoiseach had a real commitment to the agriculture sector, after four months he should give the Minister a hand by appointing a Minister of State with responsibility in this area and not keep it as a carrot to hold over disgruntled backbenchers.
I join in the thanks expressed to Deputy Eamon Ó Cuív and Deputy Michael Moynihan for highlighting this issue and bringing it to the floor of the Oireachtas, as they did some weeks ago. Deputy Collins referred to the crowd the Minister had in the Chamber with him. I join other speakers in congratulating Deputy Helen McEntee on her maiden speech and wish her every success but many of them criticised us for making this issue a political football. First, it would be wrong if the Oireachtas was not in a position to discuss this and, second, I would direct the Minister's colleagues to an organisation that does not normally criticise Fine Gael, the Irish Farmers Association, and its statement of 18 April: Fodder Crisis Demands Stronger Response from the Minister - IFA. That is a bit like an internal family argument, but we have to discuss this issue and, more important, how we got into this position.
Members on all sides of this House have a habit of dealing with an issue, moving on to the next issue and not learning the lessons. It would be appropriate for the Minister to have an investigation in the Department into how we got here and the reason the problem was allowed to happen because two weeks ago in my part of the country, Maloney & Matthews, which is the main animal collection service in Mayo, was reporting a 30% increase in fallen animal collections. Teagasc in Mayo reported, admittedly before the transport scheme came in but that was how serious the situation had become, that for every one bale available in the county eight farmers were looking for it at that stage.
The transport scheme and the fodder scheme is welcome. The support the Minister gave that is welcome. It was belated, but the supports given and the meitheal adopted is very welcome but the Minister's amendment states that he was planning this since September. We must find out how this situation arose-----
It was not belated. The transport scheme was in place since the first fodder started to come into the country.
It was not getting to where it was needed. If the transport scheme was in place and there was only one bale for every eight farmers, it was not working. I accept it is working now. A number of issues arise, and Deputy Kelleher has put forward some practical suggestions in that regard.
It would be dangerous to be complacent and believe that this crisis is over and that grass is growing. Last week, many of us travelled from here to Donegal and the country was divided into two halves. When we travelled through Meath and that part of the country we could see that there is clear growth. As we went further north and into the west, there is no growth. The western part of the country has not had the warm weather this part has enjoyed in recent days. In fact, it has got colder. Serious issues remain in that regard.
Teagasc has responded very well in terms of advice. The Minister needs to ensure that the board of Teagasc, and I am aware it had a board meeting yesterday on the issue, is directing extra resources into the regions where growth is and will continue to be the weakest. If that involves the Minister allowing Teagasc to move staff around to do that, that should be facilitated and encouraged.
Deputy Kelleher and others made the point that it is probably too late to avoid this happening next year, given the lack of fodder reserve, and that we will still not be in a position until mid-June to move beyond the situation. The Minister must address that urgently to ensure the Department's response next year is not reactionary but proactive and that it is on top of the problem.
I am intrigued by the line-up on the Front Bench. I do not know if it is an indication of the Department to come but Deputy Doyle, as Chairman of the agriculture committee, can invite everyone to come before it in the coming weeks to discuss the reason we are in this position we should not be in. This is probably the first practical example of the difficulties of climate change about which we all talk and now know practically, and we have to assume it will be an annual event given the change in weather conditions.
In the remaining few weeks as chair of the Agriculture Council the Minister might table this issue and consider, in the context of his having to agree the new CAP budget, if some provision can be put in place and a little more flexibility given regarding the solidarity fund to assist Ireland but also countries in southern Europe that may have to deal with other aspects of this climate crisis in the coming years.
The Minister's amendment refers to a delayed spring elevating the issue to a more serious level. The difficulty was a delayed reaction from the Minister. What we have now is sufficient but if it had happened much earlier, the problem would not have been as serious as it ended up being.
I welcome the opportunity to speak in this debate and also to wish Deputy McEntee well. It is appropriate that she would speak on a matter close to her and her family's heart, namely, agriculture.
I welcome that there have been some productive contributions from Members on all sides of the House, particularly Deputy Billy Kelleher's contribution. It contained some solid proposals that should be taken on board.
The simple, politically popular move to make would have been to establish a fund for €10 million, set up a special unit, take forever to administer it, and use only half the money. That is what would have happened, and the animals that needed the fodder would not have got it.
A sensible, cost-effective method of ensuring that fodder became available and was directed to the animals that needed it, and that did not distort the price of the fodder, was to establish a travel subsidy scheme and bring together the people who are linked most closely with the farmers and who knew where the animal feed was needed. The Minister, through his Department and the co-operatives, was able to identify where the fodder was needed. The co-operatives had the wherewithal to source the product, the hay, the haylage and the maize, get it into the country because they had the ability to do that, make sure it was distributed, and claim a subsidy. The fodder was not inflated in price although as has been mentioned, already we can see that an unfortunate consequence of this crisis is a rush for grass to provide enough feed for next winter.
When one farms in a valley 700 ft. above sea level, not 50 km from here, there is a saying that one should have hay until 10 May. This year, I sent fodder to Mallow.
Some of the most productive parts of the country have been caught out the most, because we have stretched our capability without a safety net. There is a lesson to be learned from that. Teagasc has pushed the notion of production and efficiency, based on a model that must be examined.
Deputy Kelleher's comment on nitrates is important. We should look at non-traditional ways of using land to provide fodder, including through brassica crops such as kale and rape. These could be used to provide cattle with feed and keep them out for longer.
We need a rub of the green with regard to the weather. In 1984, I remember people saying it was the third good summer in a row and we would continue to have good summers because this was a change in our climate. However, in 1985 our harvest was decimated. In 1986, we had Hurricane Charlie and were wiped out. In May of 1986 there was not a blade of grass until the end of that month, because the north-east wind cut down every blade of grass on the east coast. I was farming then and know how much that cost me. One man said it cost him eight bullocks and a horse to pay for his winter nuts. This was 26 or 27 years ago. This is not new. These things happen and what we must do is learn to provide.
I take on board Deputy Calleary's suggestion. Perhaps we should invite Teagasc to appear before the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine and ask it how it plans to advise farmers to provide enough and a little more. Perhaps we need to look at the issue of nitrates. We may need to look at the closing dates for the spreading of nitrogen, dung and slurry. We need to be quick to react to these needs.
The fact that there is an emergency fund in place means there is no need for any animal in the country not to be fed. Besides the main €1 million transport subsidy scheme, a fund exists for hardship cases. People have suggested there should be a special unit to deal with the banks. With all due respect to senior officials in Departments, the banks will answer to the Minister. The Minister of the day is elected and appointed to do his or her job and he or she is responsible. There is no point in trying to divest responsibility to somebody else; the buck stops with the Minister. I would like to compliment the Minister on taking a hands-on approach to this issue.
We need to learn from this crisis. REPS 4 has paid out almost all of its money - €166 million - to all bar a couple of hundred farmers. I urge those people not to rush to the auctioneers to compete with one another for grass that will be too dear next year. We must learn that lesson.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to a debate I believe is the most serious debate we have had in this House this year and last year. Since June 2012, my part of the country has been battered. Within one month of the beginning of the crisis in June, I raised the issue during Leaders' Questions on 12 July, but it was almost dismissed out of hand. Unfortunately, not only did the weather not improve; it got worse right through the summer. In August 2012, I asked that inspections not be carried out under the same harsh regime as normal, but in October and November 2012, Department officials went into land that had not been fit to travel on since May 2012 and penalised farmers to the extent of 100% of their premiums, REPS payments, single farm payments and disadvantaged payments because no rushes had been cut on that land. The only way a farmer could see land in western Duhallow from July 2012 until now was from a helicopter. One farmer in western Duhallow baled silage in the last week of June of 2012 and he brought it out during the dry second half of March this year. He got the bales out of the field and into the yard, but not to the cattle.
We had the coldest March on record although we had been banking on good weather in March. Some Government backbenchers said last night that Fianna Fáil would be hoping the crisis would continue. I am a practising farmer myself and I guarantee that when I left out my cattle for the first time on Monday, I sincerely hoped they would not have to return to the sheds this year. Having listened to farmers in my locality over the past six months, I know they have been persecuted with the weather and that they feel they are being left almost on their own. Every sector and every farmer was hoping for an early spring, but it was quite clear from 10 or 11 March that we were in trouble.
On 28 March, I raised the matter here in the Dáil on Leaders' Questions and it was dismissed.
On 16 April, Deputies Jim Daly, Éamon Ó Cuív and myself submitted a Topical Issue matter on the crisis. The Minister was in the Dáil building on that day, but he did not come into the Chamber to respond on the issue.
The Minister was in the building.
I was in the Dáil in the morning. I was in Clonakilty when the issue was being debated in the Dáil.
The Deputies should make their remarks through the Chair.
The Minister must have been in two places at the one time, because half an hour before the debate I met him in the corridor and asked him about the weather crisis. That is the only private conversation I have had with him since the issue of the milk quota prices in 2011. I met him half an hour before I stood up here in the Dáil.
I was not here, because I was speaking in Clonakilty that evening.
The Minister may think that was more important, but this is a desperate crisis. I will not read the last two or three paragraphs of the response put on the record of the Dáil as an adequate response. Deputy Dara Calleary mentioned that the IFA came out the following day saying the response was grossly inadequate. At that stage co-ops were sourcing silage for farmers all over the country.
On 19 April the Minister decided to respond and there was massive publicity then with regard to what was going on and what was being done. That was the Minister's first acceptance of the fact that there was a fodder crisis in the country. In my part of the country we have been persecuted by the crisis. Last Thursday, I got a text message just after 8 a.m. telling me there was a headline in the Irish Farmers' Journal announcing that the fodder crisis was now nationwide. The text message read: "Breaking news in the Irish Farmers' Journal. There is a fodder crisis in the country."
Deputy Andrew Doyle mentioned 1986, when Hurricane Charlie hit this country. A former member of the IFA said at a rally in Dublin then that it was not until the trendy cottages on the Dodder were hit that there was a national crisis. In my part of the country the feeling is that right across the higher echelons of the agricultural movement - whether the media, the Department, the Minister or commentators - it was not until the second week of April, when the crisis hit the better farms, that these groups recognised the persecution the people of western Duhallow, the Cork-Kerry region, west Limerick and Clare had suffered since June 2012. The way those people have been treated for the past ten months is disgraceful. Day in and day out I have been speaking to them. They have cried on the phone to me, not just recently, but right through since last summer.
There is a huge crisis facing us in the second half of 2013 with regard to this issue. As late as today, fodder is being brought in to try to build up stock and provide solutions. However, this is happening for the best farms and farmers and those who have the best advice. Teagasc has been providing them with advice and they have got private advice. These are top-of-the-range farmers who know what to do. Farmers' problems were compounded by this crisis, but nobody listened.
They have received every advice and know what to do. However, when they were confronted with this crisis, nobody listened. Certain farming organisations have referred to a European fund. At least, people should have been informed about the crisis. Farmers' incomes have been wiped out. I refer, in particular, to those who depend solely on agriculture for an income. They do not have a second income. Their full income comes from agriculture. It will take them years to trade out of this crisis, even after what is likely to be a bumper year in relation to commodities. There is a serious crisis in the agriculture community. Someone commented in last week's edition of the Irish Farmers Journal that morale in the farming community was at an all-time low. In my part of the country it has been at an all-time low for the past ten months. It is high time we stopped praising ourselves and started to deal with this crisis.
A couple of issues have been bandied about. It has been suggested the increase in fallen cattle numbers can be attributed to the fact that we have an increased herd. The number of cattle is 10% smaller now than it was in 1998-99, the last time we had a fodder crisis. There was a huge crisis at the time, but we were able to get through it because enough fodder was available on the island to distribute to farmers.
Previous speakers suggested there be an audit of the fodder available. I said last September that we should have such an audit. Rather than continuing with farm inspections, Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine inspectors should have been going to farms to check how much silage they had available. It was clear to all concerned that there was a need for a proper audit. It would have served the European Community far better than any of the cross-compliance regulations. It would have served the agriculture community also. There is a dependence on the food industry here and elsewhere in Europe.
Those who are not farmers might suggest the fodder crisis has developed because farmers are completely over-stocked. I remind the House that the number of cattle is 10% smaller than it was 15 years ago. There should not have been a fodder crisis. Equally, the suggestion the crisis happened because too much land was tilled is not valid. Less ground is tilled now than some years ago. We should have had enough fodder and should have known what to do.
Everyone was wishing for an early spring. If spring had come by the first or second week of March, we would have known there was a crisis. It was not until 19 March that it was acknowledged that there was a crisis. The fodder importation scheme was announced on 23 April. A long time had passed since the last week of June 2012. If the Government thinks its response was adequate or swift, I am sorry.
I congratulate Deputy Helen McEntee on her maiden speech. I wish her a long and fruitful time as a Member of Dáil Éireann.
I would like to emphasise a few points before the debate concludes. Farmers all over the country are out of money and credit. Not all of them are in a position to get credit from co-ops, etc., because not all of them deal with dairy co-ops. This problem is not going to go away in the next few weeks and it has been exacerbated by the weather. I suggested the Government put a fund together. I never specified the details of how it should be done, but I suggested Teagasc be used to disburse it. I am pleased that the Government eventually put some money together. The Minister has made a number of millions of euro available. He has made it clear that there is no limit on the amount of money available within the terms of the schemes he announced. It is incumbent on us to operate in a spirit of solidarity. At the end of the day, Deputies on all sides of the House have genuine concerns about farmers.
I was involved in an impromptu meeting at Maam Cross mart last Saturday. A very effective plan for the importation of hay from England into Connemara was put together by the mart in question, the IFA and CDS Teoranta, the co-op I used to manage, with the help of Connacht Gold and the county IFA executive over the telephone. I spoke today with the people handling this issue on a day-to-day basis. They stressed to me the importance of including next week in the fodder transport scheme. I, therefore, ask the Minister to consider extending the scheme for one more week. I am not looking for an open-ended extension, as one more week should see it out. It would stop people from bringing in or buying unnecessary supplies that might not be needed. If the Minister concedes that a one week extension is needed, I will not call a vote on the motion. It would be a demonstration of solidarity. It would show that we were all big enough to see the bigger picture. It would be a signal that while we might have our debates and arguments, we could act in a constructive manner also. Having an extra week would make it easier to manage this issue.
I appreciate the Deputy's suggestion. I would like to clarify that co-ops can bring in fodder next week and the week after. We are asking them to make their purchases before this Friday in order that we can get a handle on the amount of fodder coming in next week. That is not an unreasonable request.
It would be reasonable to ask them to indicate to the Minister by the weekend the maximum amount of fodder needed. In the area where I live they know the maximum amount they will need. As it is being bought load by load on the basis of need, it is very hard to estimate how much is needed. They will not know this until they see what happens next week. People living in small rural areas do not have the financial resources to buy fodder and stock it. I am, therefore, asking the Minister to allow the buying to be done next week, even if the co-ops are required to indicate by the end of the week the maximum amount of fodder they will bring in in the next two weeks. I would like him to give me an undertaking that he will consider this suggestion in a flexible way and work in a reasonable way on it. I ask him to make such a commitment tonight. The operations involved are not huge, with broad resources.
I would also like to ask the Minister to look to the future. A problem is looming because the late arrival of spring meant land could not be closed for the preservation of grass to ensure there would be adequate amounts of silage and hay, etc. I ask the Minister to consider arranging with Teagasc for free advice to be given on how to maximise fodder production. I think Deputies on all sides of the House agree that the suggestions made by Deputy Billy Kelleher with regard to nitrates and phosphorous, etc., were particularly useful. I suggest they be considered positively and taken on board.
I have asked the Minister to examine the possibility of relaxing the seven month rule that applies under the disadvantaged areas scheme. Some farmers who traditionally buy cattle for a certain period of the year were required last year to keep them for six months, but that period has been increased to seven months this year. On the basis that one month has been lost owing to the unavailability of grass, I ask the Minister to revert to the six month rule under the disadvantaged areas scheme this year.
I am very concerned about the need to ensure there are adequate markets for store cattle and light sheep. I would not bank on too many farmers buying light lambs in the west - from Donegal to Kerry - this year.
There is a lot we could do. In a spirit of co-operation, I will agree not to call a vote tonight if the Minister gives me an undertaking that he will look positively on the proposal to extend the scheme for one week. We need to show the same solidarity to farmers that everybody involved in the agriculture business, particularly those in farming communities, has been showing in the past few weeks.
It might be helpful to the House if I were allowed to speak briefly at this point. In response to the Deputy's suggestion, we will show some flexibility. I appeal to co-ops and others planning to import fodder next week - some marts are now involved in the scheme - to inform us this week of the amounts they are planning to import next week. That would allow us to deal with this aspect of the matter.
That is no problem, but I have suggested they indicate the maximum amount.
I do not want to extend the deadline from this Friday to next Friday in an uncontrolled way.
We will provide the flexibility that I think the Deputy is looking for.
I am suggesting everyone indicate the maximum amount.
They might end up bringing in less. If it has to be bought, the problem is-----
Can I take it that the motion is not being pressed?
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Motion, by leave, withdrawn.
The Dáil adjourned at 9.20 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 9 May 2013.