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Seanad Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 13 Nov 1940

Vol. 24 No. 27

Compulsory Tillage and Guaranteed Prices—Motion.

I move the motion standing in my name:

That while recognising that the possession of compulsory powers in relation to tillage is essential to the Government in the present emergency, Seanad Eireann is of opinion that guaranteed minimum prices should accompany the exercise of these powers.

In consideration for those people who have not been able to have their tea, and I hope the Minister is not one of them——

He is, but that does not matter.

That is rather discomforting. I have not much sympathy with the others, because they have had their opportunity. The motion raises the question of the Compulsory Tillage Order and also the question of accompanying this Order with guaranteed minimum prices. I might say that when this question was debated last October, what I might say to-night was said by me then. As far as possible, I will not repeat the arguments I used on that occasion, but I will say that every argument I made then has been justified by the course of events. Perhaps I ought to say that I put this motion down with a certain amount of hesitancy, but I am one of those who feel that if our democratic institutions are to continue to function and to have the breath of life they ought to be utilised for the purpose of discussion and as a vehicle for conveying to the Ministry what is in the minds of the people down the country. There is a censorship and there is, apparently, a political truce. In all the circumstances one must do one's best to recognise the good behaviour of our betters. But it is not so easy to get all the people down the country to conform to that policy, particularly if people feel that they have a grievance that they want redressed. I therefore put down this motion because I feel that, from the point of view of farming to-day and in the future, justice is not being done.

I am not arguing, nor did I argue 12 months ago, that the Ministry should not have compulsory powers with regard to tillage. I feel that, when you are facing a situation in which the Government may have to call men out, so to speak, to give their lives in defence of the country and the liberties of the people, to compel a man to till his field and to produce food for those people when they are fighting—if that should come upon us—is not the greatest sacrifice that a man may be called upon to make. May I add this: that the uncertainty under which tillage operations are being carried on has created a situation for a great many people, created so many problems for them which they are unable to overcome, that, perhaps, for some of them it would be just as easy to leave this life altogether. Some of us know that there are times when your difficulties are so immense and so terrifying that perhaps even death would be preferable. When we are looking, perhaps, to a rather disturbed and somewhat obscured future, I think we must try to shape our policy and make our plans after such a fashion as will give the maximum stability and encouragement to our people to continue their work, particularly their toil in the fields.

There is a rather confused situation at the moment, and we are not quite clear what the law is and what the Minister's powers are, because certain legal difficulties have been raised. I am asking that when the Minister comes to operate those powers again, as I presume he must, he will go so far as saying to the farmer when he commands him to till, that when the farmer produces his crop in its final form he will guarantee him a minimum price for the crop which he produces. If we were living in normal times and normal trading operations were possible and Government interference of the kind which we are experiencing in every country to-day was much less in evidence, I do not know that I would be pressing this point of view on the Minister. But, when the Minister takes the responsibility of sending his inspector to any farmer, and giving a command, which must be obeyed under a heavy penalty, that a certain area of his land must be tilled, I think it is only justice to ask of the Minister that he will ensure that when a man produces a crop it will be possible for that man to sell his produce at a figure that will at least pay him for the cost of production.

May I say here that the Minister's policy, like the policy of his predecessor, has been a policy, not to produce in this country food for the people of this country alone: our whole plan has been to use our land and work it, taking cognisance of the fact that a huge industrial population lives just across the water from us, and that a considerable quantity of our food was to be marketed there? That was the policy of the Minister's predecessor, and clearly, it is his policy to-day. Otherwise, as things are, were we only concerned about producing enough food for our own people, all of us could come into the Province of Leinster—we could take our people from the hills of Donegal and Kerry and from the plains of Connemara, and even from Ulster, and there would be enough land in Leinster to give us beet for our sugar, wheat for our flour, and all the other cereals and root crops necessary for our own consumption and to feed animals for our own use. Now, none of us are going to advocate the desertion of either the bogs and plains of Connaught or the hills of Donegal, but that point must be taken cognisance of by the Minister when he is actually compelling the farmers of this country—and I am not opposing him —to produce much more food than is requisite for our own needs here.

What are we going to do with it? Our farmers, when they produce it, are going to market some of it in the country, and a very considerable quantity of it out of the country. In other words, the produce of our fields is going to be exchanged for other goods in another country which we cannot produce for ourselves. So that our farmers are actually being used to get produce from their land which we can exchange for coal, steel, tea, and things like that which we require, and which the land of this country cannot give us. When you are facing a situation like that I think the Minister must make up his mind that agriculture in this country can no longer be the shuttlecock of either political or economic theories that do it a great injustice.

We have to-day, I believe, considerable quantities of grain which, at the moment, cannot be marketed. There are some people who believe that some of this grain ought to be exported out of the country, and that a market is beyond our doors for these cereals which, apparently, we are not able to consume at the moment. The Minister has certain information, I am sure, which I have not got. Perhaps, if I had enough time and had a staff at my disposal, I could get the information and make the necessary calculations, but the Minister, with the information he has, should be able to make calculations to see how far the products of our own fields this year will make adequate provision to supply the needs of our stock requirements under circumstances when we may not be able to have the imports which we were accustomed to use in the past. He may be able to tell us that, with all the oats, barley and root crops that we have in the country, we may not have enough to carry our own stock through the winter, spring and summer, until another harvest comes. I should like to hear the Minister's information on that point, because I think it is of vital importance to us to-day. No one knows for certain, no one can prophesy what amount of grain we may be able to import into the country during the winter, spring and summer, until the coming harvest. Clearly, if we are going to keep our live-stock population I think the Minister is quite right to ensure, in so far as he can, that if we have food for them here we will not send food away only to find our own live stock either having to be killed off, or go hungry for this food later on.

What I want to urge on the Minister is this. We have reached a stage now with regard to our agricultural policy and with regard to the farming position when we must give our farmers some protection and some security—security which they have not to-day and which they have not been given in the past. I cannot understand the equity of the Minister's command, which I must obey, that I must go into my fields and produce a crop which, when I put it on the market, the market will not receive and for which the market will not give me cash. On the other hand, all the charges and demands on me are fixed charges. My rent is a fixed charge, my rates are a fixed charge, and my labour costs are fixed and the Minister fixes them when he indicates the amount of land that I will have to till. The prices of fertilisers, of machines— all these charges are fixed, but the one thing that is not fixed is the price that I am to receive for the produce of the labour I have put into the work of extracting a crop from the fields.

I do not know if the Minister himself would argue that that is equitable. I would prefer if the Minister would frankly admit that it is not a fair position for our Ministers to occupy. I think I put it forward before, and I repeat it now, that if the Minister for Industry and Commerce went in to an industrialist in the city here or in one of our towns in the country and commanded him to produce a certain commodity, where all his charges were fixed, and when the commodity was produced it had to go upon the market and take the chance of the market, whether the price was high or low, and regardless of the consequences to the industrialist, there would be an uproar from all the industrialists in the country and they would be down on the Minister's head. I wonder how long the Minister for Industry and Commerce would be able to pursue a policy like that?

The farmer in this country has been accustomed always to a great deal of rough treatment, and he has always accepted it. My view is that he is in a rather disturbed frame of mind at the moment. The future is uncertain, and I believe that the obligation is on the Government and on us all to get the maximum production out of the land and to see that we will have crops, so to speak, for the humans and for all the beasts we have got. I should like to see our land so used and an agricultural policy enunciated by the Minister that would ensure the increased fertility of our soil and its being so worked that we could increase the number of people who could live on it and the number of live stock as well. But as things are, and I feel that the Minister realises it, the insecurity which the farmer has been experiencing has been very depressing for him. My view is that we should have a guaranteed minimum price. I know, of course, that people will say: How is that going to be done? They will say that perhaps you can guarantee prices with regard to commodities that are consumed in the country, but what about the commodities that are being exported? I confess that I have advanced the argument myself that it is not a justifiable policy for us to subsidise exports that are going to be used in Britain, whereby the Briton is going to get cheap food, but I have re-examined that point of view and my opinion is that England either wants food from us or she does not. She has purchased considerable quantities of food from us in the past. In my judgment, she got good value for her money, and she bought our goods, not for love of us, but because she got as good value as she could get anywhere else in the world.

If there were real statesmanship in England, particularly now when there is so much talk of the war spreading further afield and with the submarine menace growing more threatening every day, one would imagine that the 12,000,000 arable acres here would be a tremendous asset from their point of view in supplying them with the needs of the people in England. In circumstances like these, and realising that our agricultural policy has always been managed out of consideration for the fact that a considerable quantity of our products was being sold in England, that policy has either to continue or to be altered. If Britain is not going to buy from us in the future, as she has bought in the past, the sooner we know that the better, and let all of us try to readjust our point of view to that situation and let all of us recognise that that has to be faced and adjust our production accordingly.

Someone referred to the killing of calves, when we were faced with a situation in which we would have to reduce the number of our live stock as other methods of export were not available. It would be the same with pigs and other commodities. If we could not export them profitably we might, conceivably, have to adopt a policy of self-sufficiency that none of us would like, but if forced upon us we would have to face up to it. We had to make heroic efforts here before. There was no alternative then, and we had just to tighten our belts. The Minister referred to Denmark, Holland and other countries which had to yield up their live stock and the produce of their fields, at any rate, for the time being. It is not my view that England does not want food. My view is that we should know whether England wants it or not, and whether she wants the maximum quantity that we could produce, but we should know what price we were going to get for it. It is only fair that we should know that, whether it is for dairying, pig production, fat cattle, poultry or eggs. It is not justifiable that we should be compelled by Government policy to get into that type of production without any security or market when it comes along.

Those of us who have been through the pig markets during the past few weeks and who have been in conversation with people there and know what they are going through, realise that the markets could not absorb the pigs offered for sale. We can appreciate what effect a situation like that has on production. The Minister in his own constituency expressed the view that we might have to reduce production. That is a point of view I regretted he had to give expression to, and I was prepared to question the wisdom of it. He may have reasons for having said that that were not obvious to others. It is not a policy I would like to embark upon unless compelled to do so. A stage has been reached here when the obligation is on the Minister for Agriculture and on the Government to give farmers a fair deal. I am convinced that the only way to do that is to see how far the agricultural policy they have to pursue has to be regulated in accordance with the demands for our food in Britain.

There are many things we want to know. We want to know whether England is prepared to take all the pigs, poultry or eggs we can produce. Apparently there is no problem concerning fat cattle. Coming to apply the present position to conditions here, and examining the effect upon farming life, I think we would be satisfied if we could go on with the job of production, as then we would have solved the greater portion of our problem. There is nothing so discouraging as the constant ups and downs farmers have been experiencing, being able to sell to-day and having no market the next day. I realise that in a time of emergency we have to take the rough with the smooth. I feel that the Minister will say: "Let us get these guarantees from Britain. What about the question of prices? Are we to be put in the position of having to subsidise exports to Britain?" Let us examine that. If farmers here are exporting commodities to Great Britain, either cattle, bacon pigs, dairy produce or poultry, we have to take the prices given there. As has been the case now and again, these may not be paying prices for the individual farmer. If, in the Minister's judgement, farmers must continue in production, my view is that the only just method by which you can keep up that production is by ensuring that individual farmers will not be sacrificed in their efforts to produce for export. That is the position farmers occupy to-day. There is a surplus which has to be exported. Farmers have to take the risk. But that surplus production is there, to a certain extent, because of legislation which the Minister has imposed.

My view is that Government policy with regard to farmers in future should be steady, should be well considered, and not changed over-night. I believe we should have guaranteed prices for the finished products that we have on the land. I know that people will ask: "How are you going to guarantee prices for barley, oats, potatoes and other commodities?" I do not think that would be the way to do it. It would be much more effective to give guaranteed prices for the finished products that were fed on these crops. The man who digs ore has to be paid, and to a certain extent a man's field that grows grain is producing raw material for the man who turns out the finished goods for the breakfast table. That is what we want to specialise in. In my opinion we should guarantee the price of beef. We should subsidise the price of fat cattle here, and we should also guarantee prices for bacon pigs, over a period as long as 12 months.

The experience of many farmers at fairs is nothing short of tragic. For some six weeks men who had pigs to sell lost on their production. One day a man would lose, and the next day, when his neighbour went to the market, because a change was made, he made a profit. Nothing is more discouraging to farmers than such an experience. That should be avoided. There is no justification for such ups and downs in prices. If we are compelled to produce goods the onus is on the Minister to see that farmers get a fair chance. If Senator Quirke had produce for sale to-day and lost money, and if I had similar produce out to-morrow and made a profit, such a happening should be avoided. We should have a guaranteed price for dairy produce so as to keep our dairy people in production. I heard the Minister's remarks on the situation as it affects dairy products. I believe that we will be short of dairy products in this country before next summer.

Certain reasons have been given by the Minister, which are the main reasons, but it is also a factor that has to be taken into account that in dairying—despite the Minister's efforts, and he has done quite a lot and is always appreciative of the difficulties of dairying—the dairy farmer does not feel that he can carry on his industry by getting 5½d. or, at the most, 6d. a gallon for milk to produce butter for people here or across the water. Dairy farming has steadily declined. Our supply of milk dropped very considerably last year from two causes. Now, to-day, you have a situation when it is far better and more profitable for dairy farmers to cash their cows, that are day after day being exported, than to keep them for production at home. I suppose people may say they ought to be prevented from exporting their good dairy cows and destroying or breaking up their herds. That sort of thing will be said by the individual who is poorly informed or who lives in a town and believes that the farmers' work should go on, no matter what happens, while he is producing rather cheap and very good food for him. There is still some liberty left to the farmers and, to the extent that they have that liberty, they are using it sometimes not too wisely but as far as I can see the probabilities are that we are going to have a very considerable reduction in butter production next year. If we go on like that, we will reach a stage when our total productivity will have fallen to a point when agriculture becomes increasingly difficult.

When I talk about subsidising the production of beef may I point this out to the Minister? It has been urged by Senator Counihan and others in the past. The production of beef in this country is very essential from the point of view of sustaining and maintaining the fertility of our soil. As far as we can judge from what the Minister for Supplies said some nights ago, we are going to be rather short of fertilisers this year. The Minister knows, as others do, that the big mature cattle which we keep here at home to finish into beef are in a sense producers of the phosphatic manure which we require now and cannot import. To the extent to which we can encourage our people to fatten their stock here at home and utilise the grain, which some of them want to export and impoverish their own farms in so doing, we are going to do a great deal, not only to maintain our soil's fertility, but actually to increase it. I believe that money spent like that will be very well spent, indeed. It would use up quantities of grain which are not being used. It would keep at home cattle that are going to England to be fattened. Some of our people think that it is good to let the cattle go and to send the grain after them to be fed to them there and to let England, generally, benefit. But it is unwise. I think a negative policy on the part of the Minister does not meet the case, and would urge him to grant a subsidy for fat cattle in this country this winter. That would be the best spent money that the Government would pass out.

With regard to pigs, I am quite convinced from my own experience that the ups and downs we have experienced over a number of years are something that must be avoided in the future, if we are going to increase our pig production. We ought to increase it and, at the same time, we should be able to reduce our costs of production by good farming methods to a point that would make it possible for consumers of bacon to get it at a lower price and to meet foreign competition in a way in which we have not been able to meet it in the past. One essential is to keep farmers in production— in summer, winter, autumn and spring.

With regard to dairy products, I am convinced that we could absorb a considerable quantity of the grain that to-day is not being fed to stock, if dairying were a better paying proposition. Quite a number of farmers have grain which they want to cash and which they could utilise to better advantage on their farms. There are problems with regard to that—problems of credit and of liabilities that are crushing them owing to immediate demands which they are unable to meet. These are impossible demands, as the cost of producing a crop this year—with wages and all the rest of it, seed in spring, and manures—is considerably more than it was the previous year. All these demands are crushing our farmers to-day and, with the insecurity they have been experiencing, are discouraging factors from the point of view of getting an increased area under tillage in the future.

I notice that the Minister has recently been dealing with poultry and eggs. It is pertinent to say here that, in considering the price of poultry produce in the country and the scarcity for home consumption, you have to go back several years, when people were unable to get a higher price than 8d. a dozen for eggs. Presumably, now eggs cannot be got for 3/- a dozen, or perhaps even more. That is the cumulative effect of an unsound attitude to our farming problems over a period of years.

I know from my experience that I am not arguing a case before someone who is unsympathetic or who does not understand. I am quite cognisant of the fact that the Minister is fully aware of the situation, but I am convinced that all farmers in the country should be at one in this matter. We ought to have stability and security in so far as our State and Government can assure it. If we obey the demands of the Government and produce crops we ought to be guaranteed that, when these crops have been produced, they will be marketed at a price that will do more than cover the cost of production. Above all, there must be a market for them. I ought not be compelled to use my land in a way contrary to my own judgment. If I cease to keep store cattle and obey the Minister by ploughing my fields and producing other crops, then I should be guaranteed a market for them at a price that will pay. The present position of our farmers is a very disturbing factor in our life in the country. I believe that all farmers ought to be of one mind, and there ought to be an appreciation on the part of the community as a whole that agriculture being the biggest thing we have got, unless you can give stability to it and encouragement to the people engaged in it—not only to stay in it but to increase their efforts and exercise their intelligence and initiative—and give them the other means necessary to greater and more efficient production, the life of this State and its security, its stability and its strength in the future are all being threatened.

Finally, I say that the Minister, in so far as he is responsible for imposing this policy on the country, which farmers generally feel they cannot reject, has a further responsibility, namely, to ensure that, if he compels us, farmers, to do certain things in the interest of the nation, the nation will be just to us, and not put us in the position of being the one section which must obey all commands, all behests and requirements of the Government, as representing the people, but is left as a Cinderella to take whatever chances there are out of the market. That is not a situation which is good for us, and if we are expected to do our duty to the full, the Minister should this year, accompanying the Compulsory Tillage Order, tell our farmers that he is going to guarantee to them a minimum price which is going to do something more than merely cover the cost of production.

I formally second the motion.

I move the adjournment of the debate.

I formally second that motion.

Debate adjourned until the next day the Seanad sits.
The Seanad adjourned at 9 p.m.sine die.