Priority Questions

Areas of Natural Constraint Scheme Funding

Charlie McConalogue

Question:

26. Deputy Charlie McConalogue asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine when the programme for Government commitment to increase areas of natural constraint, ANC, funding by €25 million in 2018 will be delivered; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7416/18]

When will the programme for Government commitment to increase areas of natural constraint, ANC, funding by €25 million in 2018 be delivered and how does the Minister propose to distribute and allocate that funding among the categories of disadvantaged area payments?

I thank Deputy McConalogue for raising this issue. I am very aware of the importance of the areas of natural constraints, ANC, scheme which issues annual payments in excess of €200 million to more than 95,000 farmers. The ANC scheme has always been recognised as a very important support for rural society and farmers across the country who farm constrained lands. In light of the importance of the scheme, A Programme for a Partnership Government included a commitment to provide an additional €25 million for the scheme in 2018. I am pleased to confirm that this commitment was delivered in budget 2018 and that, subject to the European Commission’s approval of an amendment to Ireland's rural development programme, this new funding will be available for payment under the 2018 ANC scheme.

A number of different options were available in deciding how this additional funding was to be divided.  I was conscious of the need for money to be targeted at those farmers on lands with higher levels of constraint. With this in mind and having considered the views of stakeholders, I have decided to distribute the additional €25 million as follows: €13 million will be allocated to the mountain type land category; €9 million will be allocated to the more severely handicapped category; and €3 million will be allocated to the less severely handicapped category. These allocations will have the effect of increasing the current payment per hectare rates across all land categories. Those farming on what is known as mountain type land will see their payment increase from €109.71 to €135 on the first 10 ha and from €95.99 to €112 on remaining hectares up to a maximum of 34 ha. Farmers with land categorised as more severely handicapped lowland will see an increase from €95.99 to €104 per hectare up to a maximum of 30 ha, and those with less severely handicapped lowland will see an increase from €82.27 to €88.25 per hectare up to a maximum of 30 ha. I am satisfied that these increased payment rates are consistent with the underlying logic of the scheme, where the highest level of support is targeted at those who are faced with the highest level of constraint on their land. These changes must now be formally agreed with the European Commission by way of an amendment to our rural development programme. My officials have initiated this process, with a view to introducing these new rates for payment in 2018.

I thank the Minister for his response. I agree with him that the ANC payment is an important one. The vast majority of farm families, approximately 100,000, receive it. One of the benefits of this funding is that all of it goes directly to farmers. I also agree on the proposed method of distribution of the funding, which is very much in line what I had proposed. I think it is a fair way of doing it. It is important there is fairness in the land categorisation and that payments reflect the type of land that farmers have to farm.

Today, I am proposing that the increase in ANC funding this year be €50 million rather than the €25 million provided for in the budget. I note the Minister is smiling. Given the large underspend in his Department year on year, including in respect of rural development programmes, he has the capacity to be flexible with payments and to deliver for farmers. I would rather that the Minister would do that instead of smirking at the constructive suggestion I have made. The underspend in respect of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine for last year was €78 million. It was €106 million in 2016. Can part of that underspend be used to increase ANC funding this year to €50 million and thus provide twice the level of funding to farmers this year than is currently proposed?

I find it ironic that Deputy McConalogue can raise this issue month after month and refuse to face up to the logic that what he proposes is robbing Peter to pay Paul. For example, the Deputy is suggesting that I would spend a farmer's entitlement under the green low-carbon agri-environment scheme, GLAS, in a different area. I cannot legally do that. The Deputy should reflect on what he is proposing. When Fianna Fáil was last in government, the underspend for the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine was €150 million. That same year, Fianna Fáil cut disadvantaged area payments and it abolished the installation aid schemes. I rest my case.

It would serve the Minister well to focus on his own record rather than take comfort from policies that might have happened in the past, from which we should be learning. The Minister should refrain from citing what happened ten years ago under previous Administrations to justify what he is doing now. We need to look at what is on the table. According to the statistics from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine there was an underspend of €78 million last year across various sections of his Department's budget. The year before that the underspend was €106 million after the reallocation of funds to other programmes under the Revised Estimates process. The capacity is there but the will is not. I do not propose to go into the GLAS statistics, but as the Minister is aware, €1.4 billion was promised but only €1 billion is being delivered, which is a shortfall of €400 million.

Before he puts the amendment to the proposed rural development programme to Europe, the Minister should consult his officials on the underspend in his Department with a view to an additional €25 million being allocated to the areas of natural constraint scheme and thus deliver increased income this year to farm families.

I have repeated my position ad nauseam but it has become something of a dialogue of the deaf between Deputy McConalogue and me. I do not propose to break a contractual commitment into which I have entered with a farmer in Donegal, Cork or any point in between and to reallocate that funding to other areas, be that GLAS, the beef data and genomics programme, BDGP, targeted agricultural modernisation scheme, TAMS, or any other area under the rural development programme. Every cent that we are entitled to under the rural development programme will be spent.

Afforestation Programme

Martin Kenny

Question:

27. Deputy Martin Kenny asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine his plans to make changes to the forestry programme to restore priority to farmers as opposed to non-farmers who under the present programme receive equal treatment, which has created an anomaly in land prices that disadvantages the farming community; and his further plans to increase the level of assistance for engagement in agroforestry. [7227/18]

The Minister will be aware of the mid-term review of the forestry programme in respect of which a huge issue arises for County Leitrim and other areas in the north west where there are large amounts of afforestation that are having a devastating affect on communities and society in general. I am seeking confirmation from the Minister that, in the context of that review, consideration will be given to restoring priority to farmers in relation to grants for afforestation as opposed to the people who buy up the land and get farmers to apply for the grant, which means that for the first 15 years investors, who are very far removed from the communities in which the trees are grown, rather than farmers are getting the grant.

I thank Deputy Kenny for this question. My colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Doyle, is unavoidably absent today. The current forestry programme does not differentiate between a farmer and non-farmer but targets funding at all landowners who wish to convert lands to forestry. It is important to note that the non-farmer category also includes recently retired farmers and the family members of existing farmers. I am satisfied that the vast bulk of the grants and premiums paid under our forestry schemes are paid to, and remain in, rural Ireland.

Reinstating the farmer-non-farmer forest premium differential is not an option being considered by the Department. Therefore Forestry Programme 2014-2020 will continue to pay the same premium to all landowners to ensure that the maximum amount of land is available for afforestation.

With regard to land prices, the value of land is governed by the laws of supply and demand, and for those selling land, this is a positive development. There are many reasons lands are put up for sale and there are also regional variations in terms of demand, supply and quality which influence the final price paid for land. Forestry may be one of many factors which can influence movements in land prices. According to my Department’s own analysis, returns from forestry, while attractive for landowners, are not such as to drive excessive land prices.

From an investment perspective, investors cannot afford to pay too much for bare forestry land given the returns available, and this should act as a natural brake for this type of investment. For farmers, forestry offers a viable alternative enterprise which allows them to diversify their income stream towards the more stable timber market and for this reason the supports offered by the State are very much welcomed.

My Department is currently undertaking a mid-term review of the forestry programme 2014–2020, under which there will be proposals to make further improvements to the forestry schemes. These improvements are aimed at encouraging farmers to see forestry as part of the farming enterprise as opposed to being an alternative to farming. I expect to be making a further announcement on this review and its recommendations in the near future.

I thank the Minister for his reply but it is not what I wanted, nor does it reflect what the vast majority of farm organisations and people involved in the industry, certainly in the north west, want to see happen.

The Minister referred to a mid-term review. That should be postponed until such time as several issues are dealt with. One such issue concerns Coillte, the contracts and the associated problems. Another issue is ash dieback, which has not yet been resolved. Large sections of the north west - the land to which the Deputy McConalogue referred, which is usually land of natural constraint - are being taken over by a monoculture of Sitka spruce forestry. This is having an absolutely devastating effect on communities and farmers trying to buy adjacent land. These farmers may be competing with farmers from very far away who are buying the land to obtain carbon credits from forestry to offset against other activities. They are legitimately entitled to do this but, from the point of view of the people who live in the areas where the forests are being planted, it is devastating. The Government needs to halt the review, go back to the drawing board and come up with solutions. The existing solution is not working for the communities.

I accept some of the points the Deputy is making. I realise the narrative on forestry in the communities to which he refers is not positive. We all need to work collectively with the communities to explain the benefits. The Deputy represents a constituency in which there is considerable employment downstream from the timber industry. It is very valuable employment. I am sure the Deputy agrees. This employment would be put in jeopardy if we did not continue to have a supply of timber. This message rarely gets out. I refer not only to the major processing plants but also to local enterprises providing fuel and pellets for heating, for example. In total, there are approximately 12,000 people working in the industry. This is not to be sneezed at. Significant export earnings are generated.

I accept there is resistance, however. Landowners almost regard forestry as throwing in the towel and accepting defeat. A fundamental question must be asked, however, regarding what forestry will deliver for farmers, not through the selling of land and throwing in the towel but through tax-free income. This is significant and sometimes overlooked. We should try to acknowledge collectively that forestry has a significant role to play, including in terms of climate change mitigation. We should try to embrace the positive side while also working with the communities.

I accept that. I know many people who work in the forestry industry. I was at the Masonite factory last week. For every hectare of land planted with forestry, however, the number of jobs created is very low by comparison with the amount of work generated by farming. Consider all the inputs associated with farming land. Farmers bring their cattle to the marts and when they sell them the meat is processed. This happens every year. The cow calves every year, the calf is raised and the processing occurs on an annual basis. One must wait 40 years for the trees to grow.

There is a tax-free premium for 15 years.

There is a tax-free premium for 15 years but the point I am making is that, in County Leitrim, that premium is very often being drawn by people who do not live in the community and who have nothing to do with it. Where I live and in other such places, almost 20% of the land has been planted. If one takes the rivers, mountains and lakes out of the equation, one notes that probably 50% of the available land in County Leitrim is under forestry. It is time to call a halt to it. Other areas of the country need to bear some of the burden. County Leitrim will be overrun with forestry and will have no place for people any more. This should not be allowed. The time has come to ban forestry in places such as County Leitrim.

The purpose of the mid-term review is to take stock of the forestry programme and analyse why the established targets were not being met, the extent to which they were not being met and the measures necessary to ensure we get back on track in meeting the targets. This is the context of the mid-term review and what it has primarily been about; it is not a fundamental reappraisal of the forestry policy at all.

I hear the point the Deputy makes. Nobody who is tuned in to this debate is unaware of the issues he talks about. There is a positive side that rarely attracts attention, however. The Deputy mentioned Masonite Ireland. That is part of the story but not the full story, however. There is the question of partial afforestation and the ability of farmers to continue to farm the rest of their land. It is not necessarily a matter of selling up and allowing the land to be planted by somebody else, be it a local buyer or an outsider. One must be careful about interfering in the market and with people's right to extract the best price when they decide to sell their holding. There are issues to be addressed but there is a positive story that can be sold. Notwithstanding what the Deputy says, Leitrim does not have the highest rate of afforestation in the country.

Dairy Sector

Jackie Cahill

Question:

28. Deputy Jackie Cahill asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine the reason he agreed to European Commission plans to remove the fixed price for skimmed milk powder for public intervention stocks in 2018; and whether he will make a statement on the matter. [7417/18]

I would like to ask the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine the reason he agreed to the European Commission's plans to remove the fixed price for skimmed milk powder for public intervention stocks in 2018, and if he will make a statement on the matter. There was always a fixed amount of product bought at a fixed price, amounting to 109,000 tonnes. How come the Minister allowed it to be put on a tendering basis for 2018?

I thank the Deputy for the question. As he is aware, the Irish dairy market, following on from broader EU and international trends, is currently in a much improved position compared to the relatively recent past. Of course, we remain extremely vigilant in monitoring the current market and emerging trends, particularly as we approach the peak period for Irish milk production.

While the overall dairy sector is now in a much better place, particularly at the farm gate, the issue of intervention stocks overhanging that particular market remains a cause for concern arising from the significant recourse to this market measure for skimmed milk powder across the EU since September 2015.

There are now approximately 376,000 tonnes of skimmed milk powder in public intervention stocks, effectively overhanging the EU skimmed milk powder market. My Department and I engaged at Council of Ministers meetings and directly with the Commission on recent measures to limit further stockpiling of skimmed milk powder in 2018 without due justification, including the Commission's proposal to reduce the fixed-price ceiling to zero, to which the Deputy refers. I strongly argued that this measure should be specified as for 2018 only to avoid setting a precedent for the longer term. This point was accepted and agreed in the final version of the measure as adopted by the Council through Regulation No. (EU) 2018/147 of 29 January 2018, which came into effect the following day, 30 January.

I have clearly stated previously, at Council of Ministers meetings and elsewhere, that it is imperative that the Commission remains vigilant in monitoring the market and that it have contingencies in place in the event of market volatility re-emerging, particularly in relevant markets, particularly the raw milk, butter and skimmed milk powder markets. In common with the vast majority of EU member states where dairy production is of significance, I recognised that the current position on existing stocks could not be allowed to persist indefinitely and that there is general acceptance that doing nothing is not an option.

It is important to note that this measure does not represent a change to the fundamental provisions of the intervention mechanism, nor to the necessary supports that intervention provides during periods of market volatility. Ireland has welcomed and made use of intervention during such periods of instability. This measure responds and is framed around a very specific set of circumstances, namely, very significant intervention stocks of skimmed milk powder, a significant divergence between skimmed milk powder and butter prices in negative and positive directions, respectively, and a generally more favourable market context in the EU dairy sector, including the farm gate in respect of more recent raw milk returns.

I have clearly stated the system, as it evolves, will need to display flexibility in respect of adapting to market contingencies, including flexibility around proposed skimmed milk powder buying-in prices at tendering rounds, to react to the broader market situation at any given time. The issue of current stocks cannot be disentangled from the issue of managing skimmed milk powder intervention in 2018 and beyond, however. The issues involved, with respect to both market management and sentiment in the sector, are complex and require ongoing careful management.

Given the Commission's status among the world’s biggest players on the skimmed milk powder, SMP, market, and as such its capacity to affect market sentiment, it would be appropriate that it continues to act prudently and responsibly in the disposal of stocks. I am satisfied to date that the Commission has managed those stocks in a prudent manner. My Department has engaged and will continue to engage with the Commission, with other member states, and with national stakeholders on these important issues.

The Minister gave a very comprehensive reply but, unfortunately, I disagree completely with what he said. In fact, the Minister has reneged on his responsibility to Irish dairy farmers. He has allowed the Commission to set the precedent of taking away the floor price from milk. In 2016, only for the fact that all the product that was going into intervention was bought at a fixed price, milk prices would have gone into the middle teens or below that. The Minister has now allowed the Commission to operate a tendering system for the purchase of skimmed milk powder, which means in essence there is no floor under milk prices in 2018.

In 2017 the price of skimmed milk powder never went above the intervention price. In fact, a lot of product was sold by Irish processors under the intervention price rather than put the product into storage. The Minister has now given the Commission a weapon in that it can buy skimmed milk powder at whatever price it wishes, going forward. That is a hugely dangerous precedent to set. I accept there is a lot of skimmed milk powder in intervention and the reports we hear are that the Commission is prepared to sell that at a very low price. The Minister has now given it the weapon to purchase product for intervention at a low price as well. He has fundamentally changed the rules by which price supports operated. It was written in stone that 109,000 tonnes could be purchased each marketing year at a fixed price. The Minister has allowed the Commission to move away from that and it is incorrect for him to say he is not setting a precedent. He cannot expect Irish dairy farmers to accept that because it is unacceptable. We had set a precedent and we have now allowed the Commission to take away the floor price for dairy products.

Deputy Cahill should be cautious in terms of making the point that what I believe to be a prudent measure is removing the floor from dairy prices. I draw his attention to the fact that one of the leading processors in the Irish dairy market has maintained the price for milk in January at the price paid for milk in December. Many processors may only need an excuse to begin to drop the milk price and Deputy Cahill should be careful in the comments he makes.

I will just make a couple of other interesting and relevant points. In the event of increased volatility in the marketplace, these changes do not remove the capacity of the Commission to buy into intervention. It is not closing the door on further intervention.

It is ridiculous in the extreme to argue that a €650 million overhang in the market, which is what the value of those stocks are at the moment, does not impact on the market of itself.

I object to the Minister saying I am trying to talk down milk prices. As a dairy farmer and a man who represented dairy farmers for years that would never be my objective.

It is incorrect of the Minister to say he has not taken away the floor price. It was written in stone that 109,000 tonnes had to be bought at a fixed price. The Minister has allowed that to be taken away. Let us deal in facts here. Climatic conditions and world supply will dictate the price for 2018. Neither the Minister nor I will have any say in where the milk price sits for 2018, but the fact is that he has given the Commission the weapon to allow it to buy product into intervention at any price it wishes. That was never the case heretofore. The Minister has reneged on his responsibility to ensure there was a floor price for Irish dairy products. Hopefully, we will not need that floor price in 2018 but unfortunately we needed it in 2016. Skimmed milk powder never rose above the intervention price in 2017. Now we have given the Commission a mechanism to buy product at whatever price it wishes. In 2016 it took in all the product at a fixed price and that was what kept the floor in the market but that floor is not there in 2018. I hope we will not need it but the issue will be outside my control and that of the Minister and it will depend on world supply. The amount of milk that Glanbia buys in January for manufacturing is very small.

To use a different analogy, if Deputy Cahill was going to Thurles mart with only calf for sale at the mart on that day, that would be fine, but if there are a couple of hundred calves in the pens outside, that will impact on the market price that is available on the day.

If there is an overhang of value worth €650 million in skimmed milk powder on the market, that of itself is an influencer on the market. The response is a prudent one and does not take away the instrument of intervention and there may be further purchases of intervention in 2018. It is a time measured intervention in that it will apply for 2018 only. Anybody who would argue that we should have done nothing and maintained the status quo is wilfully ignoring the fact that skimmed milk powder of that volume and value is of itself an influencer on the market.

GLAS Payments

Willie Penrose

Question:

29. Deputy Willie Penrose asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine his strategy to overcome intractable problems faced by thousands of farmers who still have not received GLAS payments; his views on the high level of complaints regarding the operation of GLAS payments; the actions he plans to take to address this; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7226/18]

The Minister is aware of the perennial problem of delays in GLAS payments. Is the Department prepared to chronicle the problems that were identified in relation to the 2017 payments that were the cause of the significant delays and send them out to Teagasc advisers, agri-consultants and planning consultants to ensure that everyone who applies for GLAS payments and is entitled to them is paid in a timely fashion? Is it the case that an overly bureaucratic view or assessment is leading to delays over piddly-widdly things, as they say down the country?

Let me start by pointing out that, with regard to payments, 2017 was a record year with over €1.6 billion paid by my Department to farmers. On GLAS, given that the first approvals under the scheme run from October 2015 I consider it is a remarkable achievement to have exceeded the rural development programme target of 50,000 GLAS participants within a period of 15 months. Last year we paid out almost €200 million on GLAS and since the new year we have paid a further €22.8 million.

The overriding factor in the processing of all EU-funded schemes is to ensure that all regulatory requirements are respected in issuing payments. This includes the requirement that payments cannot commence until after 15 October annually.

As of today, there are 49,700 active participants in the GLAS scheme and 93% of those eligible have received their 2017 advance payment since these payments commenced. In addition, GLAS training payments to both participants and approved GLAS trainers have commenced with over €6.3 million issued to date.

Fewer than 6,000 cases continue to be processed of which approximately 2,700 are a matter for the GLAS participants themselves, and there is nothing my Department can do to pay those until they complete the necessary steps themselves. Payments are continuing as we speak and will continue until the remaining payments are cleared. My Department is communicating further with those affected to prevent further delays to payments. I expect the 2017 balance payments to commence by the end of May and appeal to all applicants to ensure that required documentation is submitted to facilitate these payments.

Updates are published weekly on my Department's website and clearly show that progress is being made in reducing outstanding cases. It is important that any such request from my Department to a GLAS participant is responded to as the information requested is essential to finalise all checks.

The Minister has not outlined the nature of the checks and the problems identified. Perhaps a lot of people in here do, but I do not hold any torch for the IFA. However, it has set up a service unit that is used by between 55 and 60 farmers a week. It identified between 800 and 900 farmers in the space of a few months. Surely to God a lot of people are in the system and not everybody comes into it new. There should be a freeflow system. I often think there is somebody in the Department trying to identify problems. The Minister said 3,500 people will not get a shilling until May. He said there are approximately 6,000 cases outstanding and 2,700 have to get back to the Department with little bits and pieces in terms of failure to provide nutrient plans, for example. What is the cause of delay for the remaining 3,300? The Minister outlined that there are approximately 49,700 active participants in the GLAS scheme and 43,200 of those have been paid.

Could the Minister indicate whether there is a problem with the famous computer that is in the Department? I have no time for computers. I still write letters in the old fashioned way.

That computer is famous. It caused many headaches and much heartache. I am unsure whether the Department ever got it fixed, but I would be grateful to find out whether it is playing a role again.

I do not accept that there is a significant information technology issue in the Department. The outstanding payments go through a series of regulatory checks. The green low-carbon agri-environment scheme is complicated. Multiple actions have to be compatible with individual plots on farm holdings which, in turn, have to be referenced to the basic payment application of the farmer. There is a degree of checking to ensure eligibility with the basic payment application. Plot actions then come into it for individual plots and so on. The Department is waiting for information from certain people, including information on nutrient management plans, commonage management plans, rare breed actions and low emission slurry spreading. That is primarily what is sought by the Department. We suspect a cohort of applicants have disengaged from the process entirely and are no longer active. We are in the process of trying to communicate with them directly and through their advisers to see if they are still participating in the scheme or have, in fact, walked away from it. In some cases there has been no action or communication on the application for several years since the scheme was introduced in October 2015. We suspect some of them are in that category.

I do not have the figure for last Friday, although I suspect it is on the Department's website, but on the previous Friday we made in the region of 1,200 or 1,300 payments. We are clearing payments as quickly as we cross-check references. When a farmer submits all of his or her details of low emission slurry spreading or rare actions, we have to cross-check all of them with the plots. We are clearing them as quickly as we can. There is no comparable problem to the problem this time last year with GLAS.

The Minister will be aware of the comments of the European Commissioner, Mr. Hogan, who several months ago said one of his aims was to streamline and minimise the level of bureaucracy and regulation which is strangling people. A farmer would want to have a PhD to get through it, given nutrient plans, the need for cross-compliance and everything else. Most of this stuff is absolutely silly. I have a brother at home who is farming. I would not take it up now and I have a master's degree in agriculture. Half of it is nonsense and it is time to cut it out. I have a case in which a farmer has land that is about 15 cm away from where trees should be sowed and the decision in the case is now being appealed. The Minister should cut out the nonsense and tell those responsible to cop themselves on. It makes no sense to put stuff back to within a few centimetres of where it is. That is the problem and the reason for the difficulty. If a case does not fit into the nice seamless system in the Department, the officials are on the back of the unfortunate farmer in the middle of somewhere. A farmer in suckler cow country does not have much income at this time of the year and getting a few shillings under this scheme could be critical.

It is a complex scheme to administer and I take the point the Deputy is making. One of the objectives the Commissioner has set for himself in the context of the CAP post-2020 is greater simplification. We could all do with revisiting and embracing that objective.

I make the point that the Commission carried out a public consultation process which showed that there was considerable public support for the Common Agricultural Policy and providing an adequate budget for it. However, it was linked with the fact that the Commission wanted farmers to meet greater ambition in respect of sustainability of the environment. That is our flagship scheme in this area. Simplification will be a key objective in the revision of schemes. Payments will have to reflect the outcomes farmers are achieving. I take the point made. We are working flat out, as we receive the necessary information from individual farmers, to pay them as quickly as possible. However, there is a cohort from whom we are awaiting information.

Fodder Crisis

Charlie McConalogue

Question:

30. Deputy Charlie McConalogue asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine to set out the number of applications received under the fodder aid transport subsidy scheme; when payments will issue; his plans to reconsider introducing a meal voucher scheme; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7418/18]

Will the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine set out the number of applications received thus far under the fodder aid transport subsidy scheme? When will payments issue? Will the Minister reconsider the approach and introduce a meal voucher scheme rather than the foolhardy approach he has taken? He has arranged for a subsidy for an already scarce fodder resource to transport it throughout the country.

To provide assistance for those livestock farmers severely affected by ongoing fodder shortages, mainly in parts of the west and the north west, I introduced a targeted fodder transport measure. It operates through the co-operative structure. The aim is to partly offset the cost of transporting fodder between those areas where it is available and those where it is scarce. The measure applies only to fodder purchased in the period from 29 January to 20 April 2018.

In advance of the introduction of a fodder transport scheme I prioritised the payment of farm supports to assist farmers with cashflow. Payments under the basic payment scheme, the areas of natural constraints measure and the agri-environment scheme injected over €1.4 billion into the rural economy by the end of last year. These payments are providing a welcome boost for Irish farm families and will help to finance additional fodder purchase, where necessary.

I have also asked Teagasc, through its farm advisory service, to identify farmers who are most at risk of running out of fodder, provide them with support to carry out fodder budgeting on their farms and explore all feasible options to ensure they will have sufficient feed for the coming winter months. I consider the current scheme to be an appropriate response to the fodder challenge in the west and north west.

As of last Friday, 9 February, no applications had been received under the scheme. It is important to understand the application process. Farmers apply for the contribution towards transport having already secured fodder through their local co-operative. Pre-application in advance of securing fodder is, therefore, not required and early applications are not envisaged. A valid application requires the submission of a completed forage budget form, a completed application form, a completed co-operative declaration of transport and purchase of forage.

I have no plans to introduce a meal voucher scheme. There continues to be adequate fodder available nationally. My Department will continue to monitor the position.

I am not surprised that the Department has not received any application yet because the applications process is exceptionally obscure. It is altogether unclear to the farming community. It has really been designed as no more than a public relations stunt by the Minister to try to give the impression that he is doing something to address the issue. In fact, the outcome of what he is doing will be an increase in the price of what is an already scarce fodder resource. Farmers who go to meetings or talk to farm advisers about how to deal with the fodder shortage are advised by professionals and Teagasc officials to use grain-based concentrates to try to make the already scarce supply of fodder stretch, yet what does the Minister do? He gives a subsidy to transport wet silage from one end of the country to the other rather than follow the professional advice. He has made the scheme as obscure as possible and it is difficult for farmers to apply. I appeal to him even at this late stage. A small number of areas are affected, but many farmers are facing an acute problem. Will the Minister look at adopting a more sensible approach and introduce a meal voucher scheme instead?

I encourage farmers to consult and adhere to the advice of their farm advisers, whether they are Teagasc or private advisers. In many instances, the advice will be to stretch the fodder they have available. It may well be that purchase of meal or beef nuts or whatever else might be the more appropriate route for them to follow rather than purchasing fodder. Under the scheme my Department has announced a subsidy is available towards the cost of transport over a prescribed distance from the applicant. That is appropriate in the context of a solution where that is identified as the necessary response. I do not intend to introduce a meal voucher scheme. The current scheme, as constructed, is an adequate response.

The Minister is encouraging farmers to listen to their agricultural advisers and primarily use grain-based concentrates. That is the policy advice to deal with the fodder crisis and what farmers should do. They should listen to professional advice, but the Minister has decided to take a different approach. He has decided to bring forward a subsidy to transport silage and hay from the other end of the country, which is not what the professionals are advising. He has decided not to operate that scheme alongside a meal voucher scheme, which is the response advised. Instead, he has decided to do it on a stand-alone basis. If farmers go down the route of availing of the Minister's subsidy, it will lead to increased demand for an already exceptionally scarce fodder resource. It will take farmers away from the professional advice, which is to deal with the fodder crisis through the use of additional grain concentrates. The Minister is not following his own advice. He is telling farmers to do what he says but not what he does. It defies logic.

The Minister is also making the process so obscure that it is exceptionally difficult for anyone to engage with it. Despite this, he is somehow able to say he might do something about the problem. If his scheme was to work, it would be counterproductive.

For the purposes of clarity, my Department is not purchasing meal, silage or hay but providing a transport subsidy. The original case made to the Department was that there was no fodder available, primarily in the west and the north west. While there is a challenge in certain pockets of the country, there is no widespread shortage of fodder in the north west and certainly not nationally. Before coming to the House, I visited one of the widely used online applications for the sale of fodder. When I refined my search by region, I found that more than 163 people in the west and the north west were offering fodder for sale.

I ask the Minister to reconsider the approach he is taking. The advice is and should be to use grain-based concentrates because increased demand for them does not lead to increased prices as they are bought at a world price and much of the grain has been imported already. When a transport subsidy for grass-based fodder is provided, the cost to the farmer is the purchase price and the cost of transport. The Department's scheme increases demand for grass-based fodder, thereby increasing the price. The Minister will not change his approach, but his response has been much too late, exceptionally ineffective and ignores the advice agriculture professionals are giving farmers on how to address the issue.

On the contrary, the evidence suggests all the clamour for the State to produce its cheque book and buy fodder led to the withholding of fodder and inflated asking prices. The Department's approach is introducing a degree of realism in the marketplace for fodder locally, as is right and proper. Our intervention acknowledges that there may be instances where there is a requirement to transport fodder over long distances. The evidence available online is only one straw in the wind. If the Deputy picks up any of the weekly farming publications, he will see other offers of fodder for sale in the regions. There is not a national or regional fodder shortage but localised shortages in some areas which can be dealt with by engaging with the advisory service. Where it prescribes that fodder needs to be made available, my Department will support the transport of fodder under the scheme.