Crop Damage Compensation

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Finneran. I raise this issue with regard to the nursery growers of Ireland. I visited one of these nurseries — Kelly's nursery in Streamstown — two weeks ago, and I have never seen such utter devastation. The leylandii, which I consider to be the hardiest of plants — weeds, almost — were all dead, as were rows and rows of eucalyptus, lavender, escallonia, laurels and others. I have here an itemised list of the plants that were lost, at a total cost of more than €600,000. This is an award-winning nursery employing 18 people, yet it has been left to its own devices. There is no help.

I was speaking to Mr. Kelly, the owner of the nursery, today and he said that not one person had come to ask him how he would cope. This man works 12 to 14 hours a day. There is no difference between him and a potato grower. Yet potato growers were compensated, and good luck to them. They had a meeting with the Minister early in January and their case was closed on 16 January. However, on this date the true extent of the devastation from the frost damage would not have been experienced by the nursery growers. I understand there are nurseries in similar situations in Tipperary and Kilkenny.

Mr. Kelly told me today that five or six customers call him every day to say that plants they bought from him have died, and he has no other option but to give them refunds or credit notes. He expects the credit notes alone will cost him between €40,000 and €50,000. This man is experiencing a massive loss. It will not knock him back; he will survive because he is an optimist and a brave man. He wants nothing for nothing.

I understand the Minister met with some of the nursery growers last week. I find it quite offensive that they were offered a campaign to advertise through Bord Bia. This is an insult. They need to be compensated. The cost to Mr. Kelly of dumping all the dead plants is €60,000. I saw them in the nursery: yellow, dead plants. He is in a disadvantaged area. I understand the equivalent of 30% of his production is what he should receive as compensation. I do not see how he is different, as I said on the Order of Business, from a potato grower, and more power to them for obtaining their compensation or whatever they got.

I ask the Minister of State to intercede in this matter. I understand the Minister, Deputy Smith, is tied up with all that is going on in his constituency with the Quinn Group and so on. However, this is not just one nursery but a nationwide issue. These businesses are put to the pin of their collars to survive and they need support.

I thank Senator McFadden for tabling this matter. I am taking this on behalf of the relevant Department.

Due to the very wet conditions experienced during November 2009, a significant proportion of the national potato crop remained unharvested at the end of the year. In the early days of January 2010, this situation was compounded by the arrival of severe frost conditions, which resulted in losses of potatoes and other field vegetables, such as carrots, cabbages and cauliflower, which had remained unharvested and as a consequence suffered extensive damage.

Following a preliminary assessment by officials of the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food of the crop losses caused by the severe weather conditions, the Minister, Deputy Smith, announced on 3 February 2010 the introduction of a limited scheme of financial assistance for certain potato and field vegetable growers who could demonstrate that they had suffered significant loss of their produce due to these severe frosts. Affected growers were asked to submit to the Department a crop damage assessment form detailing the crops involved and the extent and amount of the losses they had incurred. The closing date for receipt of these forms was Friday, 19 February.

The scheme of assistance is being administered in full compliance with EU state aid rules. It is confined to the actual losses experienced by growers and is conditional on more than 30% of the crop having being destroyed, in accordance with the criteria laid down in those rules. In addition, limitations will be imposed on the level of the assistance provided. Eligibility for assistance will be determined by analysis, on a case-by-case basis, of the detailed information provided by each grower. The objective of this analysis is to establish not only the losses incurred, but also the impact of such losses on the growers' overall enterprises. Growers deemed eligible are required to show that the potatoes and field vegetables were damaged by the January frosts and demonstrate the extent of the damage.

Officials of the Department have completed all on-farm inspections to verify that those crops which are the subject of the claim for assistance were present in the fields at the time of the inspection and the extent of the damage caused by the frost. The Department has recently written to all applicants who have met the various conditions, including the inspection requirements, requesting the submission of documentation justifying their financial losses. On receipt of this documentation, Department officials will calculate the losses, applying the provisions of the scheme as required by EU state aid rules and applying a sliding scale of assistance as appropriate. When the level of losses has been satisfactorily established, final processing of the claims for payment will commence. As early as possible thereafter, payments will be issued to those growers who fulfil the conditions of eligibility laid down in the scheme following the verification of each claim.

The Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is not in a position to extend the scope of the scheme to the nursery sector. The scheme is confined to potatoes and other field vegetables and indications are that even with confining aid to 40% of losses, as required by EU state aid rules, and applying some form of scaled payments, the total level funding required will be significant.

The Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Deputy Cuffe, met a delegation of IFA horticultural chairmen, including the chairman of the hardy nursery stock committee, on Tuesday, 27 April 2010. It was agreed that a further meeting between the Minister of State and the hardy nursery stock committee will be arranged presently to discuss the overall state of the nursery stock sector.

Mr. Kelly has informed me that 30% of his production is already gone and that the figure could increase to 40% because people are returning produce daily. I welcome that the Minister of State, Deputy Cuffe, has met the nursery association but that is no use to these people. I urge that an intercession be made on Mr. Kelly's behalf. He will keep going but he needs a small amount of financial assistance and he qualifies under the EU criteria.

I acknowledge the issues raised by the Senator in regard to the potential losses of €600,000 and 18 jobs in that enterprise alone. I will outline the Senator's views to the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Deputy Smith, and the Minister of State, Deputy Cuffe, and perhaps these issues can be discussed further at the meeting planned for the near future. I acknowledge in particular the case of Mr. Kelly who appears to have suffered substantial losses.

Even in respect of the dumping, €60,000 is a huge amount. If compensation could be found for that amount, it would make a difference.

The Seanad adjourned at 8.15 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 6 May 2010.