Agriculture: Statements

I thank Senators for giving me the opportunity to address the House on the current status of the areas of natural constraint, ANC, scheme review, payments made under the green, low-carbon, agri-environment scheme, GLAS, the current fodder problem and native cattle breeds.

The ANC scheme is one with which farmers across the country are familiar and an important support for many. As it stands, it was introduced under the rural development programme 2014 to 2020 as a replacement for the previous disadvantaged areas and less favoured areas schemes which had been in place since 1975. Payments under the ANC scheme are an important support for farmers across the country in addressing cash flow issues and contributing to the continued growth and development of the agrifood sector. The scheme was originally introduced in 1975 in recognition of the fact that farmers in particular areas were faced with challenges related to lower productivity and higher production costs than farmers in other areas where levels of disadvantage were not as pronounced. Given that the scheme has been in place in various guises for over 40 years, it is no surprise that the farming community is interested in how it will develop in the coming years.

The scheme was originally based on addressing issues such as rural depopulation, threats to the conservation of the countryside, lower income levels and the presence of lands which were more difficult to farm efficiently. Since its introduction, the scheme has been subject to several reviews at EU level. Ireland was successful during the course of those reviews in ensuring areas facing particular difficulties and additional costs would be included as eligible under the scheme. From the first review of the scheme in 1976 through to the fifth review in 1996, the number of hectares included as eligible under it grew, from just under 4 million to over 5 million. At the same time, the reviews also resulted in more land being designated as having higher levels of disadvantage which attracted higher levels of payment. Accordingly, the scheme has a long history of review and refinement since its introduction.

The significant level of financial support delivered through the scheme since 1975, as well as the changes to eligible land in Ireland as part of the various reviews, shows recognition of the fact that the challenges faced by farmers in certain areas pose a significant threat to the future viability of farming communities. The specific objectives of the scheme are, therefore, structured around themes such as ensuring continued agricultural land use, thereby contributing to the maintenance of a viable rural society, maintaining the countryside, as well as maintaining and promoting sustainable farming systems which take environmental protection into account.

I am aware of the importance of the scheme to the more than 95,000 farmers who receive the payment annually. With this in mind, I have prioritised in my Department in recent years the efficient making of payments under the scheme. The scheme is currently structured around a tiered payment structure. Those farming on what is called mountain-type land receive €109.71 on their first ten forage hectares and €95.99 on the remaining hectares up to a maximum of 34. Farmers with land categorised as more severely handicapped lowland are paid €95.99 per forage hectare up to a maximum of 30 hectares. Those with less severely handicapped lowland are paid €82.27 per forage hectare up to a maximum of 30 hectares.

As part of the negotiation of the new rural development programme, a new category was added to the scheme in 2015. In recognition of the particular barriers and costs island farmers face, a new category of payment was introduced for offshore island farmers. Farmers on offshore islands now qualify for payments of €250 per hectare on the first 20 hectares, €170 per hectare on the number of hectares between 20 and 34 and €70 per hectare on the number of hectares between 34 and 40. In 2017 payments under the scheme began in mid-September and, to date, €201 million has been paid to 94,000 farmers. With the payment of €1.16 billion to 122,500 farmers under the 2017 basic payment scheme, this is important financial support for the agrifood sector and families in rural Ireland.

In the light of the importance of the ANC scheme, the programme for 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 on in budget 2018. There are several options for allocating the additional money under the 2018 scheme, ranging from a flat rate increase to a more targeted approach based on the levels of constraint faced by farmers. The options are being considered and I expect to be in a position shortly to commence the formal amendment of the rural development programme required to allocate the money. The amendment process will include consultation with stakeholders.

Under the new Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, which was finalised in 2013, the new rural development regulation introduced a change in how eligible areas under the ANC scheme were to be defined. The designation of eligible areas under the scheme to date has been based on a range of socio-economic factors. They include particular stocking density levels, family farm income levels, population density and the percentage of the total working population engaged in agriculture. The change introduced in the new rural development regulation required that from 2018 eligible areas instead be designated using a set list of biophysical criteria. The purpose of the change was linked with a concern at EU level that areas were not being designated as disadvantaged in a consistent manner across the various member states.

Following consultation at EU level, the date for introduction of the new designation has been changed to 2019. The biophysical criteria set out in the legislation to underpin the new system of designation are low temperature, dryness, excess soil moisture, limited soil drainage, unfavourable texture and stoniness, shallow rooting depth, poor chemical properties and-or steep slope. My Department has commenced work on this project and relevant technical experts are working on sourcing and analysing the data for the new criteria. Departmental officials have also been in contact with the European Commission's Joint Research Centre and the Directorate-General for Agriculture and Rural Development, DG AGRI, on technical issues arising. As the technical work is ongoing, accordingly, it is not possible to set out the final set of areas which will be eligible for payment. However, given the importance of the ANC scheme in the Irish context, officials in my Department are continuing to engage with our colleagues at EU level to ensure the best possible outcome to the review is secured. I am also aware that many farmers will have a direct interest in the outcome of the process. Accordingly, I expect consultation to take place with key stakeholders as the process develops further.

Such is the popularity of GLAS, the original target of 50,000 participants was surpassed well ahead of the target date. Given that the first approvals under the scheme run from 1 October 2015, it was a remarkable achievement to exceed the target within a period of 15 months. There is a maximum annual payment of €5,000 under the general scheme, with provision for payment of up to €7,000 under what is known as GLAS+, where the farmer is required to make exceptional environmental commitments in a limited number of cases. Last year we paid out almost €200 million under GLAS and we continued the payments each week into the new year.

GLAS, like previous agri-environment schemes, supports participants in improving their agricultural productivity and practices in a sustainable manner. The scheme delivers overarching benefits to the rural environment and addresses the issues of the mitigation of the impacts of climate change, the enhancement of biodiversity and the improvement of water quality. GLAS provides valuable support for participants who deliver public goods and environmental benefits that enhance the sustainability credentials of Irish agriculture.

GLAS is co-funded by the Exchequer and the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development. As required under the EU regulation, two payments issue in respect of each year, namely, the advance payment and, at a later stage, a balancing payment. In 2016 and 2017, the advance payment constituted 85% of the annual payment, with the balancing payment accounting for the remaining 15%. Advance payments have already issued to more than 41,000 of the currently 49,700 active GLAS participants, bringing to €196 million the amount paid out under GLAS since the start of 2017. When ineligible cases are deducted this means 88% of eligible applicants will have been paid. GLAS pay-runs are continuing weekly and more farmers will receive their 2017 advance this week.

In approximately 3,000 of the outstanding cases, applicants remain ineligible for payment until they complete the steps they must take before the Department can process their payment. There is nothing we can do to advance these payments until the applicant completes his or her obligations. In most of these cases, these obligations relate to outstanding documentation the applicant must submit. As soon as this documentation is received and assuming everything is in order, my Department will move immediately to issue payments. The main issues include the need for advisers to submit a farm nutrient management plan to the dedicated online system, commence a commonage management plan in the case of participants with a commonage action or submit the required documentation in the case of the low emission slurry spreading and rare breed actions.

Let me be very clear, many of these cases do not involve delayed payments, as has been suggested. It is simply not possible for my Department to make these payments because the participants have not met the requirements. The requirements are clearly set out in the terms and conditions and specifications of the scheme, which were first published in October 2015. Also set out were the implications for not complying with the various requirements. We are keenly aware of the need to process and issue all payments without delay. Updates are published weekly on my Department's website and these clearly show that steady progress is being made in reducing outstanding cases. While my officials are prioritising the clearing of cases, in circumstances where a farmer is contacted for additional information, it is important that the request is responded to because the information requested is essential to finalise all checks.

While the issue of payments is of the utmost importance, it is also important to recognise what the scheme is delivering in terms of the environment and public goods and the buy-in to the scheme by the farming community in achieving and in some cases surpassing the targets set out in the rural development programme. These achievements include that the low input permanent pasture and traditional hay meadow actions are delivering more than 350,000 ha of diverse grassland species. Moreover, 29,000 km of river bank are being managed to protect rivers from pollution under the protection of watercourses from bovines and riparian margins actions. More than 200,000 ha of farmland bird habitat are being managed to protect bird species and more than 20,000 ha of wild bird cover have been planted, providing winter feed for farmland birds. In addition, 2 million trees have been planted and almost 5,000 farmers are using new technologies to spread slurry. Approximately 10,000 ha of arable land have been cultivated using minimum tillage techniques. These achievements will deliver public goods across the key areas of water quality, biodiversity and climate change which are addressed under the scheme and they will place Ireland in a positive position in discussions on future agri-environment schemes.

I understand the matter of cattle breeds native to Ireland and what is being done to ensure their future has been raised in the House. My Department recognises there are a number of rare breeds indigenous to Ireland that are emblematic of our farming and animal husbandry heritage. We are conscious of the need to maintain biodiversity on a national and global basis. In a food producing context, this objective inevitably faces an uphill struggle in the face of commercial pressure to produce more efficiently and at ever more competitive prices. Four cattle breeds native to Ireland fall under the heading "Rare Breeds", namely, the Kerry, dexter, Irish moiled and droimeann breeds. The management of these cattle breeds is co-ordinated by my Department, with the assistance of a national advisory committee. My Department provides a wide range of activities and services in a number of areas to retain and promote these native cattle breeds.

My Department's role in this area is defined in a number of international agreements such as the Convention on Biological Diversity. In its role of providing the characterisation of rare breeds, recording their inventory and monitoring trends and associated risks, my Department assists with animal identification, registration and herdbook activities. The operation of a herdbook that meets EU legislative requirements is a basic requirement for all breeds and my staff provide significant assistance to each rare breed society in this regard. My Department compiles animal data to monitor trends in animal numbers through an EU online database which is connected with all other EU countries. It also helps with the characterisation of the rare breed animals and their genetic evaluation. These services are provided through the Irish Cattle Breeding Federation or geneticists in the Teagasc campus at Moorepark. Significant funding is provided by my Department in this area.

Each breed must have a breed conservation plan and a wide range of supports is available in this area. My Department operates a research fund that provides funding for DNA and genomic analysis, both of which are essential in providing mating plans and checking for inbreeding. Funding for all rare breeds is regularly provided from this fund.

My Department also funds the collection and storage of AI straws from rare bulls for future storage and use. It has provided funding for a number of native breeds conferences and festivals, as well as websites on breeds to promote their use, and for the general education of breeders and stakeholders.

My Department operates the national advisory committee for the management and conservation of genetic resources for food and agriculture, which provides expert guidance on the best methods of conserving these breeds. The advisory committee on genetic resources for food and agriculture was established in 1996 to advise and aid in the development and implementation of plans aimed at achieving the development and utilisation of genetic resources, their identification, evaluation, conservation, promotion and marketing. My Department regularly participates in international and EU programmes aimed at co-ordinating the management of genetic resources.

In its role of providing for the sustainable use and development of rare breeds, my Department provides assistance in the preparation and implementation of the national biodiversity plan, which has as an objective the conservation of native cattle breeds. It operates the beef data and genomics programme, which provides financial assistance to farmers keeping these breeds and improves data collection. It also provides continued financial support to farmers in the GLAS, which provides targeted support of €200 per livestock unit, that is, per cow, for these breeds. This is a significant support to these breeds. The Department also operates the Kerry cow scheme, which provides direct assistance to farmers who keep animals of this breed.

In its conservation role, my Department provides help and support in a number of ways, including the development of a conservation strategy for Ireland's native rare farm animal breeds; the collection and storage of semen from all rare cattle breeds, including Kerry and Irish moiled cattle, with a view to creating a national gene bank; and the DNA typing of bulls in the Kerry cattle herdbook.

In summary, in partnership with owners of rare breed herds and breed societies, my Department implements a number of policies to help conserve and, if possible - through the use of best practice breeding methods, advice and engagement from staff and State agencies - develop and enhance our national stock of rare breed animals. These policies are supported by targeted financial support through certain grant schemes which help subvent the owners of rare breed herds with modest but important financial assistance aimed at compensating for the extra costs involved in maintaining these animals.

On the issue of fodder shortages, I am aware that weather conditions for much of this autumn and early winter have been challenging for farmers in some parts of the west and north west in particular. Difficulties in harvesting fodder in some of these areas were compounded by the need to house livestock earlier than usual, which resulted in additional pressure on fodder supplies over the course of the winter. I addressed these challenges last autumn through the early issue of farm payments and payments under the areas of natural constraints scheme. Together, these schemes injected more than €1.3 billion into the rural economy by the end of last year. They are providing a welcome boost for Irish farm families and will help to finance additional fodder purchase, where necessary.

At this time I also requested Teagasc, through its farm advisory service, to identify farmers who would be most at risk of running out of fodder and to provide them with support to carry out fodder budgeting on their farms and explore all viable options to ensure they had sufficient feed for the coming winter. As a further response I convened a fodder group last December, chaired by Teagasc, to ensure a co-ordinated response to the fodder problem across all the main stakeholders. The group included representation by local Teagasc staff, feed merchants, co-ops, banks and the farming bodies. The group met again earlier this month and reported back through my officials on the situation on the ground.

While I believe that fodder remains available across the country, I am nevertheless conscious that a key issue to resolve is the cost of transporting fodder between those areas where it is available and those where it is scarce. To address the problem I am introducing a fodder transport support measure to provide additional assistance to those livestock farmers most severely affected by the prolonged wet weather last autumn, mainly in parts of the west and north west. Farmers who have an identified fodder shortage, having completed a fodder budgeting exercise with their agricultural adviser, will be eligible to receive a financial contribution towards offsetting the cost of transport of fodder in excess of 100 km. As fodder is traded between farms regularly, it is essential that the support measure is targeted at those who most need it and does not impact on the normal functioning of the market for fodder. It is for that reason a minimum transport distance applies. Eligible applicants will receive a transport contribution of €8 per standard bale of hay or straw for feeding, and €12 per standard bale of silage or haylage.

Financial assistance under the fodder transport support measure is payable in accordance with Commission Regulation (EU) No. 1408/2013 on de minimis aid in the agricultural production sector. While this measure builds on my early supports to farmers through prioritisation of farm payments, and the convening of a fodder group, I urge affected farmers to avail of the additional fodder budgeting support being provided by Teagasc. This measure will apply until 20 April 2018. Application forms and details on the operation of the measure will be available from my Department in the coming days. I thank the Members of the Seanad again for the opportunity to brief them on these very important issues for the farming community.

I thank the Minister very much for his comprehensive statement.

I thank the Minister for his statement and welcome him to the House. Fianna Fáil is committed to protecting and developing agriculture for the 140,000 farming families in Ireland who are the main driver of the rural economy and the custodians of the Irish countryside. We believe in the family farm model of agriculture that puts environmentally and socially sustainable farming at its heart. Fine Gael has undermined that model by reducing the budget for Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, payments, introducing a disproportionate penalties regime, delaying payments, operating highly bureaucratic schemes and repeatedly presiding over annual underspends in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, for example, an underspend of €78 million in 2017.

The agrifood sector supports 300,000 jobs in rural communities and is the largest indigenous industry in Ireland, with food and drink exports reaching €13.5 billion in 2017. When in government, Fianna Fáil introduced the visionary Food Harvest 2020 strategy for the period 2010 to 2020. Food Wise 2025 has been generally welcomed by industry, but its ultimate litmus test will be if it delivers fair prices and profit levels for farmers on the ground. Currently, Irish farmers are being crippled by low prices, market volatility, labour shortages, bad weather and a lack of competition in some sectors. Combined with that, stark challenges remain on the international front, including the EU trade talks with South American beef producer nations and the UK exit from the EU, in addition to having to meet our climate change responsibilities.

The European Commission has published a communication, The Future of Farming and Food, with a view to orientating future CAP policy post 2020. Some of the major suggestions include lowering the ceiling on basic payments and shifting to member state level the design and delivery of some CAP measures. Fianna Fáil has put forward a clear set of proposals for future CAP reform. They include working for a fully funded, fair, and simpler CAP that safeguards direct payments, ensures policy is aimed at increasing farm profitability and strengthens the position of the primary producer. We also wish to introduce a maximum basic payment of €60,000 and fair farm inspections with an end to disproportionate penalties. We want to safeguard farmers and Irish agriculture from the impact of Brexit and incentivise generational renewal in farm families. We still support and push for a farm payment of €200 per suckler cow.

At the best of times farmers experience severe cashflow problems and they are finding it incredibly difficult to secure credit from banks to use for on-farm investment. Budget 2018 created a €300 million low-cost loan fund for SMEs via the Strategic Banking Corporation of Ireland, SBCI, and a further €25 million was allocated in budget 2018 for the development of further Brexit response loan schemes for farmers, fishermen and food businesses. Further SBCI and European Investment Bank funds need to be deployed to safeguard the agrifood sector as it is the sector most exposed to Brexit. Fianna Fáil believes that the SBCI should also be permitted to lend directly to farmers and rural enterprises.

The areas of natural constraints, ANC, scheme is a vital source of income for nearly 100,000 farmers that injects €225 million directly into rural communities. Fianna Fáil successfully campaigned to get agreement from the Government for €25 million in additional ANC funding in budget 2018. It is vital that increased ANC payments go to those on the most disadvantaged land. Restoring ANC payments to 2007 levels remains a key Fianna Fáil policy.

After cutting it.

I welcome the Minister's announcement on the fodder crisis. However, despite repeated calls for a fodder support scheme, the Minister has only indicated his intention to help pay for the transportation of fodder. Farmers in many areas across the west and north west are experiencing severe fodder shortages. That is putting a massive financial strain on already hard-pressed farmers and the Minister's announcement will do very little to help those farm families. We have been calling for a meal voucher scheme to be rolled out as a matter of urgency, and given the huge departmental underspend last year, there is no reason some of this money could not be directed to assist affected families. A meal voucher scheme would help fund the increased use of cereal-based concentrate feeds on farms in affected areas and would allow farmers to reduce significantly their requirement to feed grass-based fodder, which is in short supply. During similar previous crises, Teagasc developed meal with a forage content and that would be suitable for use as a feed as it would provide the forage requirements needed by the animals.

There is a need for permanent funding to be sought to protect farmers from losses incurred during severe weather. There seems to be an ongoing crisis in that regard every year. Unfortunately, the Government chose not to include a measure in Ireland's Rural Development Programme 2014-2020 which would compensate farmers from losses caused by adverse weather. Under the available suite of measures, member states can provide for funding for the restoration of agricultural land and production damaged by natural disasters and adverse climatic events. Not only do we have a fodder crisis but last year there was a tillage crisis and the grain sector suffered most from the climatic conditions. Tillage farmers are desperately hoping that dry weather will take hold so their harvest will not be destroyed for a second year in a row.

I wish to address the issue of a dairy intervention with the Minister. As he may be aware, Fianna Fáil has requested that he urgently attends the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine to outline his backing for the removal of EU price supports to dairy farmers. We are very concerned that the Government has given a blank cheque to the European Commission's proposal effectively to remove the floor price for skimmed milk powder, SMP. The move represents a significant reversal of EU policy. Since the CAP reforms under Agenda 2000, intervention has served to act as an effective floor price and eliminate the more extreme negative price fluctuations. This safety net has given certainty to dairy farmers and removing it for any period is playing with fire. The Minister must seriously reconsider his support for the agreement to reduce the quota for intervention from 109,000 tonnes to zero. If that goes ahead, the price of milk at the farm gate will seriously reduce. We are all well aware of the massive investments made by farmers in the dairy sector, in particular in recent years.

While some might have the impression that there is a good price for milk, most of them are up to their necks in debt. This change to the skimmed milk powder intervention, as the Minister is quite aware, will bring down the farm-gate price of a litre of milk. Next year, it will not be fodder or cereal growers but dairy farmers who will be knocking on the door of the Minister. Prevention is the best cure in many instances. There is still time to make sure this does not happen.

I welcome the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine and thank him for his comprehensive statement on agriculture. I note his comments and response, and the attention to detail he has given to the review of the areas of natural constraints, ANC, scheme, the green low-carbon agri-environment scheme, GLAS, the fodder problem and cattle breeds. I do not know where that list came from or who conveyed it to the Minister, but as he knows, there are greater issues. I am not going to rehearse those issues, because I think he has given a very satisfactory explanation in regard to them, and there is no point in repeating that.

I took the trouble to revisit A Programme for a Partnership Government. This is the blueprint for the Government and, in fairness, a lot has been achieved. I want to start off on a really positive note. Between page 108 and page 120, there are 13 pages with 14 key overarching objectives for the Government's plan. This Government was courageous and brave enough to set down an agreed programme in print. It is incumbent on all parties and politicians, be they party members or Independent, to ask the Government to account for its stewardship and delivery on its programme, which its members set out as their programme, not our own. I want to acknowledge that. I suggest that we go through the programme some other time the Minister comes before the House to gauge the Government's success six months down the road. It is important that we continue to go back to the agreed programme.

I want to mention several issues, some of which the Minister touched on earlier. One of these issues was the fodder crisis. We all know there is a fodder crisis, after an extremely poor summer resulting in poor crop and poor returns of silage, hay and grain. This has had an impact on farmers. Farmers are having difficulties turning out cattle as a result of the bad rain and flooding over the last months, and they are facing the challenges associated with that. I note the Minister's suggestion of a transport subsidy or support, but fodder has become expensive. It is a commodity.

I was in Galway recently speaking to farmers. The other day I was in Leitrim speaking to farmers. There are exorbitant prices for fodder in certain cases. Farmers in Cork and farmers in the west are very different. The Minister does not need me to point that out to him. However, there is a problem there. Fodder has become expensive. When there is a demand for a commodity, it becomes dear. We need to acknowledge that. I ask the Minister to consider some sort of voucher scheme for meal or some other form of fodder to assist farmers, particularly smaller farmers, who are experiencing real difficulty.

I wish to mention some of the more positive trends. I want to acknowledge the enormous work that Teagasc is doing. Teagasc is working with rural development and training agencies to improve viability and the quality of life in rural areas. Teagasc has several workshops, some of which I have attended, covering a range of diversification issues, including agritourism, food, organics, goats, forestry, renewable energies and much more. There is also a growing interest in the development of artisan food and business in agriculture.

I also want to acknowledge the BIA Innovator Campus, associated with and supported by Teagasc and Galway County Council, and the work done there. In recent times they have aspired to create more than 360 jobs. That is a very important aspect of their work. That work is going on in Teagasc's facilities in Athenry, County Galway, and has the backing and the collaboration of industry, Enterprise Ireland and the farming community. The important thing in agriculture is innovation through adding quality to products, and diversification. These are challenges for all farmers, be they big or small, and I know the Minister acknowledges that.

I ask the Minister to comment on how we can look again at rebuilding the sugar industry. I attended a meeting in Castledermot recently. Between Castledermot, Carlow and Kilkenny, it is suggested that a potential plant has been identified for the processing of sugar beet. There are great opportunities to bring back sugar beet in this country, particularly in some counties. Growers are keen. There seems to be a desire to get back into sugar beet. I do not know the Minister's plans for that. Perhaps he could share them with us.

I always talk about Ireland as the green island of opportunity for quality food. That is what we must be. I ask the Minister to talk more about that.

I know that this next topic pertains to the Department run by Deputy Creed, but it is an area that I understand we spoke about in the Seanad today. I refer to our discussions with the Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Andrew Doyle, about Coillte and forestry. I attended a meeting of the Irish Natura and Hill Farmers Association last weekend. I am not going to rehearse everything I have said already today, but there are severe challenges in Leitrim, Mayo, Galway and Roscommon. Where Government policy on forestry is concerned, I understand that the EU carbon emissions targets have to be met. However, I am not quite convinced that blank forestry of sitka spruce all over these regions is the way to go. We need to talk again about sustainable forestry. We need to talk about broad-leafs, rural communities and their survival.

I am also somewhat concerned that I have learned that there is no right to make freedom of information requests of Coillte. The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine and the Minister for Finance are the primary shareholders in this company. We need to address transparency and access to information. I understand that Coillte is a private company, it has a strict mandate and it has to deliver. However, I will address this issue with the Minister at another time.

I want to talk about food traceability and the quality of our food, and the opportunities that go with that in Europe. This presents challenges and points the way forward. I draw Members' attention to Making a World of Difference, Bord Bia's policy and strategy document, which the Government has wholly endorsed and included as a key objective in the programme for Government.

There are challenges facing us, particularly in the area of employment. There are huge employment opportunities in agriculture. New challenges face this country. Many people who want to come here, through the asylum process or other channels, want to work here. There are labour shortages within agriculture. I would like to see Teagasc and the Minister's Department pushing for more apprenticeship-like farm training. Teagasc does a wonderful job. Its representatives gave a presentation here recently in which they identified the need to develop apprenticeship-style agricultural hands-on training. I think there are major challenges, but there are also major opportunities in this area, and I hope the Minister will work on them.

I want to make a few requests. Will the Minister co-operate with Teagasc to explore apprenticeships and training? Will he explore water attenuation grants? There is a huge capacity to retain rainwater on farms. There is an infrastructure, though not a huge one, in water attenuation grants. There is also a potential to develop that area. Would the Minister consider further exploration of organic products, including foods and soft fruit? There is a range of opportunities for diversification in agriculture and horticulture.

The Minister might come before the House at a future time so that we can re-examine the programme for Government and its key objectives. They are good objectives. There are good stories in agriculture. Yes, there are setbacks and disappointments, but there is a hell of a lot going on in agriculture and horticulture innovation, and there are great possibilities for a green island of Ireland.

I welcome the Minister. Without a doubt the most immediate and pressing issue in the north and north west of the country is fodder. The continuously wet weather that people have been experiencing more or less since last summer, as previously outlined, has affected farmers' ability to save silage, hay and so on. It has also caused them to house animals at an early stage, putting more pressure on limited fodder. I welcome the Minister's response, including the setting up of the fodder transport subsidy scheme. This is very important. Farmers who can see that they are or are about to be affected, or who face the imminent threat of running out of fodder, need to act.

At the initial stages of the crisis, the Minister asked Teagasc to conduct a study of where fodder shortages might exist.

What was the nature of the report back to the Minister on the matter? What numbers of farmers are involved? What is the situation in individual counties? Can the Minister paint a picture of the more empirical findings? Farmers complain of the problem to me. We know farming organisations have been highlighting the issue. We would benefit from knowing what Teagasc has come up with.

It has not stopped raining - that is the problem. This is also leading to problems with holding tanks in slatted houses. I am unsure what the Minister can do, but people cannot put animals on the land and the holding tanks are full to the brim. It is beyond difficult and depressing for farmers at the moment. They are on the land battling with all of this and there is no end in sight. If current conditions run for another while, it will only compound the issue. I am keen to hear the views of the Minister in respect of the establishment of a meal voucher scheme. At what point will the Minister consider that?

The most critical issue, aside from the weather, is the upcoming meeting of Ministers on the EU Mercosur agreement. We all know there is a serious threat to beef. There is potential for significant tonnage of beef to be imported from South America on top of what has already been taken in. Our beef and livestock sectors are significant to us. Some 90% of output is exported and the sectors are worth €2.5 billion to the Irish economy. An estimated 100,000 farmers are involved and 20,000 people are employed in marts, merchants, transport and input supplies. This could have far-reaching consequences, more immediate than Brexit.

Farmers will be competing with countries we are better than in respect of traceability, food safety, animal health and environmental standards. I presume the Minister will attend the meeting. How does the Minister see us positioned? We have allies in the French. This is serious. We have invested seriously in agriculture. Everything needs to be done to protect the interests of the farmer. If we do not protect the farmer, we will end up not meeting the targets in respect of Food Wise 2025 and so on. There will be a further exodus of farmers from the land.

Another issue that I raised previously will not go away any more than the bad weather will not go away. This relates to climate change and the requirements on the agricultural sector. Farmers are getting a great deal of unbalanced or bad press. Previously when the Minister was in the House, I cited the analysis done in the Citizens' Assembly. It was altogether unfair. I have heard from Department officials who are charged with this area of all the efforts and significant measures farmers have had to take and are taking. More will be needed - no one is disputing that whatsoever. However, farmers are already weighted down with all the efforts they must make, none of which are recognised at conventions such as the Citizens' Assembly. This must be disappointing for farmers.

I saw an interview from the European Parliament on Monday. I was rather shocked at one of our MEPs, the Sinn Féin MEP, Ms Lynn Boylan. She slammed farming practices in Ireland. Furthermore, she stated that our ambition to increase exports of dairy to Asia was unsustainable. Apart from being unpatriotic in the face of us dealing with Mercosur negotiations, Brexit and the new Common Agricultural Policy, in respect of which we are already coming under pressure from significant green lobbies, it shows considerable ignorance of all the efforts farmers are making. Almost every scheme or agricultural practice is informed by environmental considerations. Farmers play a considerable role in ensuring water quality, biodiversity and climate change. Since 1990 there has been a 6% reduction in agricultural emissions notwithstanding a 40% increase in output from farmers. Ms Boylan did not seem to know, or it did not seem to bother her, that we are the most efficient in the world in carbon emissions in the dairy sector and the fifth most efficient when it comes to beef production in Europe. There was singling out of farmers and a suggestion that dairy should be pulled back and that we should reduce the suckler herd and so on. The reality where I live is that we have the co-operative Aurivo as well as several other co-operatives. Larger co-operatives such as Kerry and Glanbia would shut down if we did not look for export markets. Why not get dairy and beef from the most carbon-efficient producers, such as Ireland?

We have carbon emissions and work remains to be done. However, given that it is the biggest industry in the country, the comments represent poor form at a time when we need to see solidarity in Europe. We need to see people fighting our corner. Many people would like to pull the rug from under us, whether in respect of corporate tax or our farming. Moreover, I am keen to note all the success stories that have made up the recovery of our economy.

A body of work needs to be undertaken now. This is something the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine encountered on a visit to Europe. We found a lack of awareness or appreciation of the work that farmers and the Government are trying to do at every step. Everyone is responsible for every step.

If I were to be more critical about where we are going with carbon emissions, I would single out transport. I am unsure why anyone would single out farming. Transport is lagging behind like no other sector. It is discouraging to encounter the singling out of farming. This is something we have discussed before. We are trying to bring people along. That is how real change with an impact occurs. We cannot say extreme and ridiculous things to people, such as that farmers should get rid of their animals. There has been no recognition of all the efforts that have been taken. As a result, people disengage. We are going to lose the battle on climate change.

This is a very nuanced situation. As we face into the new CAP, further environmental requirements will be made of Ireland. I hope farmers will be properly compensated for that. If more is being asked of farmers, farmers will need more compensation. That has to be put into the mix.

I am calling for a more balanced debate among politicians and in the media. Where groups such as the Citizens' Assembly engage in such debates, proper and full information should be available. No one takes from the green lobby and what those involved have to offer. We all have to wake up to that. However, if we do not have a rounded debate, we will leave people behind us.

It is interesting that Senator Mulherin is lecturing Sinn Féin on patriotism. We could talk about Fine Gael MEPs and their support for the EU-Canada Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership and Mercosur, which was going to flood European markets with beef and competing products without any of the standards that are demanded of the Irish farming community. We need no lectures on patriotism at European level from anyone, especially those in Fine Gael.

What did I just say?

Earlier today there was a joint meeting of the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine and the Joint Committee on Rural and Community Development. A presentation was made by the European Court of Auditors. The revelations were stark in terms of what has happened to family farms in Ireland and throughout Europe. Some 1,000 farms are closing every day throughout the European Union. In Ireland in the past ten years, one in three young farmers – those under the age of 44 years – has been forced off the land. The interventions for young farmers are absolutely failing.

We have an ageing farming population. With reference to the Western Development Commission, 41% or four out of ten family farms in the west have disappeared in the past 20 years. All of this is the result of intentional policies both in Ireland and at European level. In the Visitors Gallery we have Mr. Ciaran Staunton, a respected and well known campaigner on the rights of Irish immigrants in the United States. However, he is also campaigning on the rights of emigrants returning to Ireland, something we always said we wanted. Government policy repeatedly has been that we want emigrants to come home to build their futures and rear their families here. However, when the issue of encouraging returning emigrants to enter farming is raised, the barriers are huge. All of the statistics being given are official figures from the Government or Government-funded organisations. Returning emigrants need to be factored in.

We have to be honest about the ideology that has led us to this situation. The European dimension was mentioned. We have allowed the big agrifood businesses, meat factories, supermarkets and multiples to destroy the family farm model both in Ireland and elsewhere. What does this mean for places such as County Donegal, from where I come? It means that rural communities with their wee shops, post offices and businesses are being ripped apart. It also means that money that could be spent in them is just not there. The focus increasingly is on big business. We need to make sure this issue will be addressed in the current debate on CAP reform. For too long we have not had a fair distribution of CAP moneys. It is obscene to see corporations and huge farmers receiving the level of funding that they are, while small farmers, particularly those in the west, are being squeezed to the bone. This issue has to be addressed.

Another issue in the context of CAP reform is the inspections and bureaucracy farmers face. We now have a charter of rights. However, it will mean nothing if farmers have to wait long periods for their payments. It has to be accepted that in recent times, in the context of farmers getting all of the documentation required into the Department, its IT systems have been a huge issue resulting in delays. This was admitted by departmental officials. We are talking about farmers who are really struggling and many are not making any money, but they are investing in schemes in good faith and then at the end of the year the money will not be paid on time. This is a huge issue. The process needs to be more efficient and simplistic. We need simplification of the CAP and need less burdensome inspections. We in Sinn Féin have also been talking for a long time about a yellow card system such that we will not penalise farmers so hard immediately. We need more proportionate penalties. There must be a much fairer approach, particularly when we are seeing so many farmers being driven from the land. We have to get this right. Therefore, we need to look at constructive co-operation and effective communication systems. This issue has been raised repeatedly. Even though there is a charter of rights, what benefit are we getting from it?

The next issue I want to raise is that of a fair price for produce. The Minister, Deputy Michael Creed, will know that there has been an agricultural market task force report in place since November 2016 at European level. It is an important report which was long overdue. It makes key recommendations on mandatory price reporting, particularly in the meat, fruit and vegetables and dairy sectors. We want accountability when it comes to prices. We need farmers to know where they stand. We also need to help them to organise to get a fair price for their produce.

The food euro was the subject of another proposal made. It reveals how much of €1 spent by consumers on a typical food product goes to each player in the food chain. The consumer can see, when he or she buys lamb, dairy produce or whatever else it might be, who is getting what from the amount of money they are spending. The primary producer has been getting the poor man's share for far too long.

I want to know what is being done in Ireland to ensure the report's limited and basic recommendations - they are not radical by any means - are being implemented at European level. I refer to areas of natural constraints, particularly in the west. Hill farmers want to know that, after the next review by the Department, resources will go to those farmers genuinely in areas of natural constraints. I refer to those who are farming on hills and land prone to flooding. We need to get this right. To be frank, we have really taken the mickey with reference to the disadvantaged area payment. It is being made to a large swathe of farmers rather than to those who need it most. We can also make sure those who currently benefit will not be devastated. The right balance can be found, but that is the challenge for the Minister. The payment has to be made to those who genuinely need it most or else there will be a threat to our funding at European level.

There is much more I could say. I will have opportunities at the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine to engage with the Minister. Let me summarise if I can-----

We need a fair price for farmers. We need to confront the big business market interests that are destroying family farms. We need honesty on these issues and to make sure the CAP will look to reverse the horrendous trend of driving young and small farmers from the land and moving towards corporations. We have talked about the issue for years. We need action and delivery.

I will keep it short. The organic farming scheme has been closed since 2015. As my colleague Senator Pádraig Mac Lochlainn said, we need to create more opportunities for the decreasing number of farmers. We also need more diversity in schemes for farmers if we are to try to encourage them to stay in farming or bring more into the system. The organic farming scheme benefited biodiversity. It also benefited water quality, carbon emissions and animal welfare. It would potentially also benefit the farmer economically and in terms of quality of life. There are farmers who would be very interested in such a scheme. Could the Minister possibly reopen the scheme to allow those who are queuing up to have more choice?

My second point concerns the policies the Minister might put in place to support or improve the position for suckler cow farmers.

I welcome the Minister and acknowledge his contribution, particularly on the issue of areas of natural constraints, ANC, which has been in focus for a very long time. I acknowledge the Minister's clarification.

Let me raise an issue the Minister did not mention - where we are going with young farmers. We heard an interesting presentation on young farmers this morning by the EU audit committee. It is a problem Europe-wide. The issue is trying to regenerate and re-energise the agriculture industry. One of the statistics given is that Europe-wide we are losing about 1,000 farmers a day, which is an absolutely frightening figure. I know that it is Europe-wide, but it still shows the level of decline. It could be argued that the two biggest issues in farming today are that of trying to get young people into farming and the sustainability of farming, about which the Minister has spoken at length, but I think that is going to be our biggest challenge. I refer to trying to encourage young people to come into the system. I was interested to hear the views of the European auditor on the actual amount of money being pumped into it. We have put money into the green low-carbon agri-environment scheme, GLAS, and the targeted agricultural modernisation scheme, TAMS. We have increased the level of funding from 40% to 60%. We have also increased the single farm payment by 25%. However, has the actual number of farmers under 35 years in the system increased?

The major issue for the next CAP talks will be to ensure there will be a future for agriculture in the years 2020 to 2050. How will we deal with the issues that arise? If we are to look at creating a future for agriculture, we need to consider how to get the older farmer off the pitch. Previously, we had an early retirement scheme for farmers which worked to a degree. It gave farmers an opportunity to take a pension from the age of 55 years and hand the land over to the younger farmers. A report dating from a few years ago stated more farmers aged over 80 years were farming than farmers aged under 35 years. That statistic shows the issue with the age profile of farmers. Are the next CAP talks the time to consider reintroducing a scheme to help farmers retire early and move off the land and hand the reins to the younger generation? At present we have used the scheme of enhancing single farm and GLAS payments for young farmers, but has it been successful? Do we need to evolve and put the focus on ensuring that land is transferred from farmers aged 60 years to younger trained farmers who now have between two and four years education in agricultural science behind them and are super at what they do. We have left the days of doing a 60 day course in Teagasc and getting a Green Certificate. These are exceptionally well trained farmers. The only issue we have is how we ensure they can get their hands on the land at a younger age so that they can create the benefit we need for industry.
I appeal to the Minister to consider those issues. The key issue, bar the question of sustainability, is to ensure that young farmers have land and we have to come up with ways to deal with this.

Cuirim céad fáilte roimh an Aire. Tá mé chun tacú le cuid mhaith de na pointí atá ráite cheana féin ag daoine a ghabh romham.

I support many of the points made previously by a number of speakers. The issue of returning emigrants and the green card scenarios should be addressed. It affects certain counties in the west. I hope we can help the returning emigrants who have elderly parents to come home and keep the family farms going. I ask the Minister to address this issue and, having considered it, I would welcome his suggestion as to what could be done to support them.

The issues with the scheme for areas of natural constraints are ongoing. There have been massive meetings of farmers across the western seaboard. The farmers have been very frustrated at the way the ANCs have been approached. If we are to consider the CAP review, I would be in favour of reverting to the Ciolo recommendations. When the previous Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development, Commissioner Dacian Ciolo came to the committee of these Houses, his understanding of the way that the Common Agricultural Policy was supposed to support the less well off farmers was much more progressive than what we have ended up with under the present Commissioner Hogan. The former Commissioner seemed to be coming from a background where he was very much supporting the smaller family farms. I think the scheme for areas of natural constraints has moved away too much from that; certainly the level of funding for ANCs should be balanced towards the smaller farmers in the really difficult areas.

Another issue is the family farm being regarded as an asset in determining education grants for those families with children going to third level education. I know the IFA has raised this issue with the Minister on numerous occasions and also with previous Ministers. There was a promise that it would be addressed, but as far as I can see it has not been addressed to date.

The Irish Natura and Hill Farmers Association was recently quite critical of the Department around the Farmers' Charter of Rights 2015-2020 and the ongoing negotiations and discussions that would happen between the Department and the representative organisations. The INHFA said it was in tatters and raised issues such as the failure to inform claimants of the 2017 basic payment scheme, BPS. I ask the Minister to address the Farmers' Charter of Rights and how the relationship with the farmers can be rectified because the confidence of farmers in the Department seems to be dented.

The issue of keeping younger farmers in farming, as Senator Lombard mentioned, is a major issue. The continuity of handing over a farm to younger farmers should be made as easy as possible and encouraging older farmers to do so is really important. One of the big factors in that regard is access to basic infrastructure and services in rural areas equivalent to those available to young people who do not live in rural areas such as broadband, nurseries, schools, transport and postal services, health care and replacement services. I appreciate that the briefs for rural areas and agriculture are separate but they are intertwined. What discussion happens at Government level in respect of lobbying fellow Ministers in the different areas such as communications and rural and community development to make sure that basic social community services are in place because that is what people would expect? If a young farmer is trying to decide whether to go to look for work in a municipal area or to stay at home and work on the farm, he or she will be looking at what services are available in his or her local area to raise a family.

The fodder aid scheme is a serious issue particularly in the west and north west. I know that different organisations have been lobbying the Minister on it and it is really important that they get the support they need because they have faced a very difficult situation in the past number of months.

There was a screening of a documentary film called "Just Eat It", which is part of the campaign being organised by the EPA called I was quite shocked and taken aback by the level of wastage. This Canadian documentary looks at food wastage in the US. We are not talking about people throwing out a few bits and pieces after they have had their dinner. They show people who are growing courgettes and celery and the amount of wastage left on the land because it is not viable to go around and pick it up. About 40% of the produce, which is very good food and marketable, is actually wasted in the production process that happens on the farm. There are similar levels of wastages through the system, in packaging, containers and supermarkets. Then there is the whole issue about ugly fruit. One example was around the bananas that are sold in the supermarkets and the restrictions that are put on them as a result of EU regulations. A person visited one of the South American countries where they grow bananas for the European market. There were mountains of bananas that were perfectly good that were being thrown away because they were too wide, too long or had the wrong curvature. It was absolutely astounding. That is something we should address.

We are talking about the food shortage across the world. We are seeing that the conformity in EU regulations is actually working against us. It was very clear to the viewer and it was very frustrating for the producers that food that had a small blemish was not being accepted by supermarkets because it did not look pretty enough on the shelves. I do not know how much food we are wasting in Ireland for similar reasons. What is happening with that food? The film also goes on to show how to work with groups such as the Irish group, a social venture which liaises with a lot of these groups, collects the food that is not being used and brings it to places where it is needed. The Irish group is working very closely with the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul. They were very busy putting packages together for Christmas. From the farmers' point of view, what are we doing to ensure there is as little waste as possible and that the fabulous resource, which is perfectly good food, is not thrown away? The end game is that people are buying too much food. We impulse buy and we are storing too much food in fridges and we are throwing away a lot of very good food which is going into bins and then nto landfill. The film showed the landfills in North America, huge mountains of very good food that has been thrown away and wasted. I would be interested to learn about the policy of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine on food waste.

Is the Minister aware of a programme called Stop Food Waste? How can we all promote its aims?

Sin an méid atá le rá agam. Fágfaidh mé leat é sin.

Go raibh maith agat, Senator Ó Clochartaigh. The next speak is Senator Rose Conway-Walsh and she has five minutes.

I thank the Minister for being here. We could do with five hours instead of five minutes to discuss all of the farming issues.

I am glad that the Minister raised the issue of rare breeds. I sought a specific debate on rare breeds with him in attendance but for the moment I shall say the following. In terms of the funding of €50,000 that has been made available, the Minister knows that the scheme is way oversubscribed. If we are serious about rare breeds and how beneficial they are, then there must be greater investment. I firmly believe that there will be a return on such investment because the people who promote rare breeds are very diligent. We need to take them seriously as they can answer many of our questions. I ask him to seriously consider providing more funding and I ask that we have a more comprehensive debate at some stage.

I want to talk to the Minister about a number of issues. There is a pensions anomaly with the farm assist scheme. We have instances where farmers have paid stamps, particularly between 2000 and 2007. However, on reaching pension age a review is conducted and zero stamps have been recorded. The farmers should have sought credits rather than pay stamps. I ask the Minister to consider the anomaly and perhaps we will have a further conversation on the matter outside of this debate.

I want to talk to the Minister about the appeals system. We must change a system whereby one director on the independent appeals board has a pile of files because it delays farm payments. Legislation allows just one director to assess appeals, which is totally wrong. I know of one farmer whose payments have been delayed for four years and the farming family is in desperate need of the payments. Again, I ask the Minister to consider the matter.

The year 2017 was a record year for agrifood exports which amounted to €12.5 billion. Why then are so many farmers struggling financially? Some elements in the food chain enjoyed a bumper year while most farmers have struggled with static prices and the ever-increasing cost of inputs. Milk prices have achieved a sustainable level after a few years of poor prices. What guarantees are in place in the milk sector, particular as it is expanding and there is a Brexit threat to trade in our biggest market which is the UK?

I represent the area that is west of the River Shannon where cattle and sheep farms form 75% of the holdings and dairying is an unrealistic option. Therefore, the viability of these holdings have never been more in the spotlight. One can see from reading the Teagasc farm household survey 2016 that the average income generated by the family farm was €15,000, an amount that is often quoted in the media as the norm. However, in large parts of the Border, midlands and western region, BMW, such income is a pipe dream. Teagasc carries out a separate survey for the region called the small farms survey. Teagasc has defined a small farm as a farm with 14 cows or fewer. In the region where I come from over half of all farms are described as small farms. In the Teagasc small farm survey of 2015 the family farm income was recorded as less than €3,000.

The Senator has one minute left.

One minute is not enough. An income of €3,000 annually is the reality and that is why farm incomes have decreased by 40%. The average amount of direct payment paid to these small farms was €5,500 as compared with an average payment of €15,500 paid to larger farms. In addition, 35% of small farms were deemed as vulnerable by Teagasc.

I wish to make a few suggestions and shall start with CAP reform. A more equitable distribution of farm payments must be put in place to tackle the imbalance that exists between the west and east of Ireland. A proposal to front-load payments for the first 20 hectares should be considered as most farms fall into this category.

In 2015, the national reserve scheme was introduced and was successful in encouraging young trained farmers. However, since then uncertainty has reigned and there has been huge inequity, particularly for small farms. Will the national reserve fund be opened this year?

In terms of areas of natural constraints, ANC, payments, I have heard some of the Minister's colleagues call for areas to be extended. That is not possible. I welcome the €25 million extra that has been made available. When will the maps be produced for these areas? The level of constraint in these areas must reflect the payment and we need to see the maps as soon as possible.

I hope it will not be long before the Minister returns because the agricultural industry is of huge concern. The sector needs to be forward-looking and productive. We must also have a proper informed discussion on CAP reform.

I thank the Senator. I apologise that she did not have enough time but I am just implementing the Order of Business, as agreed.

Our last speaker is Senator Frank Feighan.

I welcome the Minister to the House to discuss agricultural issues, which are wide and varied.

Tough weather conditions is an issue that is pertinent to farmers who live in the west and north west because it has caused them a lot of stress. I have asked the Minister to consider introducing a support scheme for farmers in the west and north west who face a severe shortage of animal fodder. As he will know, the poor ground conditions have caused difficulties. I am delighted that he has agreed to provide a targeted contribution towards the cost of the long-distance transport of fodder to the areas most impacted by the bad weather. The initiative stems from the fact that he convened a fodder group chaired by Teagasc comprising all of the main stakeholders which met for the first time last December and again on Monday, 15 January. One must gather all of the stakeholders together to identify problems and then address them, which is the right way to conduct business.

I congratulate the Minister for doing something that will help alleviate the very difficult fodder shortages that were felt most acutely by farmers in the west and north west. I am sure there has been a fodder shortage in other areas. However, there has been no shortage of fodder in some areas. As a local politician, I heard about the problem and I thank the Minister for addressing the issue.

Recently Teagasc conducted a fodder survey of 90 farmers from counties Leitrim and Sligo. As many as 90% of them confirmed they had experienced a serious fodder shortage this winter. I hope that the €8 to €12 per bale payment will help to alleviate the fodder shortage.

The objectives of the group were to actively monitor the situation and ensure that co-ordinated expertise and guidance on options were available to affected farmers. It is nice to see that farmers were able to get alternative feed thus ensuring they could carry out fodder budgeting.

Five or six years ago Irish farmers experienced a fodder shortage but I do not think there was a co-ordinated approach. I recall that farmers contacted me because they wanted to import fodder from the UK. The approach adopted was one of "Look guys, just bring it in and we will address the matter later." At the time the issue was dealt with through various co-ops and whatever. Most of the farmers were reimbursed but it took a little too long to arrive. I must emphasise that Deputy Creed was not the Minister at the time. I am delighted that there has been a more co-ordinated approach this time around. Unfortunately, fodder shortages do occur and, like flooding, we do not know how to deal with them. I am glad to see that lessons have been learned from the past.

The Minister has also stressed that if a situation arises whereby the welfare of livestock is at risk, herdowners should contact the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine's animal welfare helpline or regional veterinary offices for support. I accept that there are measures in place that will help with that. Once again, however, many farmers in the north west and west are facing a very challenging period in ensuring their animals have enough feed. We simply must ensure that sufficient supports are put in place where there are shortages. I thank the Minister and his Department for the work they have done, and I wish to put on the record that I hope that this will help to alleviate the serious fodder shortages in the north west and west.

Statements were to conclude at 5 p.m. and the Minister was to be given at least five minutes. The Minister has 39 minutes. He does not have to take all of that if he does not want to, but he is very welcome to conclude the debate.

I would like to start by sincerely thanking all of the Members for their contributions. I have taken copious notes, and I hope I can get a chance to reply to all of the points that were made. There was a common thread running through some of them, so if I do not attribute a response to any particular Senator, there is no offence intended.

I want to respond to Senator Paul Daly's contribution. I think it was made in search of a headline, to be honest. Senator Paul Daly remarked that Fine Gael rented the family farm and that the evidence of that was the Department's underspend. I must tell Members something. In 2008, when there was a Fianna Fáil Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the payments under the areas of natural constraints, ANC, scheme to which the Senator alluded were slashed, installation aid was abolished and the Department had an underspend of €150 million.

Monkey see, monkey do is not an excuse.

I repeat, there was an underspend of €150 million when Fianna Fáil slashed ANC payments and abolished insulation aid.

We are talking about the situation today.

Comments are to be addressed through the Chair, and the Minister is to be allowed to speak without interruption.

I want to make a point in respect of the underspend, because it is important to understand this. It is deliberate and mischievous to present this as a disservice to farming. If anything, the contrary is the case. This is a deliberate misinterpretation of the budgetary process. In the late summer every year, we begin an engagement with the Department of Finance. We completely understand what our potential liabilities are, under the targeted agriculture modernisation scheme, TAMS, the green, low-carbon agri-environment scheme, GLAS, the ANC scheme, or any of these measures. As they are liabilities which are due, we have to ensure that, in the event that the approved applicants come forward for payment, the Department has sufficient money in the bank to pay them. Senator Paul Daly and his colleagues would be the first to jump up and down in this House, as it were, if somebody attempted to draw down an authorised payment and was not paid because the Department did not have the money because it did not ask for enough. As such, on an annual basis we ask what our full contingent liabilities will be.

We have discussed GLAS. There are actions which individuals approved under GLAS have to undertake pertaining to rare breeds, nutrient management plans, commonage management plans, etc. We anticipate in good faith that all of those compliance issues will be adhered to by all applicants. However, if they do not comply by the end of the year, it means that we have provisioned for their entitlements, though the payment may not come through until 2018. Senator Paul Daly is disingenuously suggesting that because we are holding funds, we can, for example, pay a €200 suckler cow support. What he is prescribing is effectively the principle of robbing Peter to pay Paul.

In fairness, I did not say that.

The point that is being spun is that a saving has been made, and that we could do X, Y and Z if only we were prepared to. I cannot spend somebody else's money which is due to that person under GLAS, ANC or any other scheme simply because he or she does not present a paying order in the relevant calendar year. If the order arrives in January of the following year, I am still obliged to pay it.

One of the more difficult schemes here is TAMS, which most people would accept is a hugely successful scheme under a wide degree of headings, affecting tillage, horticulture, dairy, young farmers etc. A range of grants are available across a broad spectrum of activities. There are about 12,000 approved applicants. Of these, only about 3,000 have presented for payment. There are 9,000 outstanding. We have to try to anticipate the level of payment presented in any given year, and we have to provide against that. As such, looking at the accounts for 2017 one sees that we provided a certain amount for TAMS, but much less was drawn down.

In certain quarters, that is being presented as a saving. It is so such thing. That is money that has not been paid in the calendar year in question, but may come due the following year. We cannot spend the same money twice. That is a very important point. That is deliberately misrepresented to people as a failure of the Department. I believe that, on the contrary, it is a reflection of our ability to negotiate with the Department of Finance that we get provision against our full contingent liabilities, although they may not all crystallise in a given 12 month period.

The Senator also raised the issue of the skimmed milk powder. This was a matter which was discussed at the Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine. It is important to make the point very clearly that the 390,000 tonnes of product overhanging the global market for skimmed milk powder constitute a huge damper on prices. The Senator's question seems to be based on the premise that the Commission should continue business as usual. Business as usual would exacerbate the difficult price for the product. What we have secured in our interventions in this negotiation in the European Union is assurance that if circumstances change, so can the approach of the Commission. There is agreement across Europe that this is the appropriate way to continue at the moment, but it can be kept under review.

This was originally presented by the Commission as a long-term approach. We did not want that, and in the debate we managed to change it to a short-term approach for what we believe is a short-term problem. This does not in any way mean walking away from the instrument of intervention as a policy principle. I repeat, there is a glut of 390,000 tonnes, which has a value of nearly €600 million even at the depressed prices for skimmed milk powder, overhanging the market. The Commission is probably the biggest global player in skimmed milk powder prices. That overhang on the market is of itself a damper on global dairy prices. Contrary to what the Senator is asserting, the change in the Commission's approach is an effort to ensure that this does not continue to be a major depressant on global dairy markets. Our intervention has managed to ensure that it is only a short-term intervention for what we hope is only a short-term problem.

Senator Boyhan asked why I addressed four issues. Four issues were notified to the Department, but I am quite happy to address some of the other issues that were raised. Many Members referred to the fodder crisis. The reality of the crisis is that if one looks at some of the online platforms where agriculture produce is traded, and refine the search to fodder and Connacht, it will be seen that there is an active local market in fodder trading. That has always been a contingent part of agricultural activity in those regions. There have been individual farmers whose normal practice has been to buy in fodder at this time of year, either locally or hauled further distances. The Government did not want to cut across that process in our response. The last time I looked was a week or ten days ago. I do not want to give any commercial operation a plug, but on the individual platform which is widely used for trading in this area there were 199 registered offers for fodder in Connacht. I did not look at northern counties like Cavan, Monaghan or Donegal. In Connacht alone, I found 199 people offering fodder for sale locally. That was taking place across Leitrim, Sligo, Mayo, Galway and Roscommon.

Senator Mulherin asked about the feedback from the stakeholder groups, Teagasc in particular. The feedback recognised that there were localised problems, not a blanket fodder shortage across the north west. Their best estimate, based on the feedback from their regional offices, was that approximately 300 farmers were affected. As we have said, we do not want to cut across the local trade in fodder, which has always been part and parcel of the farming community in that region. Where there is a necessity to haul fodder distances of more than 100 km, we will provide a subsidy towards that expense.

That is a reasonable response. In truth, depending on the individual farm organisations involved, what was being asked for was going up and up. We were asked to haul, buy, pay for and distribute it and give a meal voucher. We made an appropriate response to the fodder crisis and it has been recognised as such.

There has been a significant overhaul of the Teagasc training module. It is right and proper that it should have happened. Previously there was the Teagasc green certificate, but farming is now big business and farmers need to be appropriately educated and qualified as it is a rapidly changing environment. The concept of lifelong learning is embraced everywhere else and there will be a response in the training offering, including agriculture-type apprenticeships and also a reconfiguring of the green certificate in terms of what is being delivered, which is really important.

Senator Victor Boyhan spoke about other things Teagasc needed to do and the necessity for product innovation. As part of the response to Brexit, we announced an €8 million food innovation hub. One of the reasons is we have 80,000 tonnes of cheese going to the UK market. If that market were to go belly up, we would need an alternative product as the market for cheddar cheese is mainly in the United Kingdom and Ireland, with some being exported to the United States. There are no large markets for it elsewhere. There is, therefore, a need for product reconfiguration. The food innovation hub would serve to assist the industry in that space.

Senator Michelle Mulherin mentioned the weather crisis as a contributory factor not just to the fodder crisis but also in slurry management. There is an important message in that regard. We have just concluded the renegotiation of the nitrates action programme and the derogation. I appreciate that the new requirements are much more onerous, but we have to move to an alternate view where farmyard manure and slurry will not be seen as a problem but as a resource. We must explore how we can get the maximum return from them rather than seeing them as products that must be disposed of. They really have a value. All of this is tied with climate change. Last year there was a significant upward lift in the amount of artificial fertiliser we were buying. We could displace some of it if we were to have appropriate management of the slurry resource. Part of it could be along the lines of anaerobic digestion because one is not losing nutrient value; one is creating energy and will still be left with the same nutrient value in the residue. We need to explore these possibilities. Certainly, anaerobic digestion is one element.

Senator Victor Boyhan instanced it but I also want to tie it with Senator Pádraig Mac Lochlainn's criticism of the Government, including the Fine Gael Party, for its support for the CETA and the TTIP. We live or die by trade agreements. Our membership of the European Union has opened the door for the agriculture industry in all of its manifestations. Whether one is a hill sheep farmer in County Donegal, a dairy farmer in the Finn Valley or a suckler cow farmer in the west, their produce is available in 180 countries around the world. Why is that the case? The answer is we have trade agreements. The EU-Canada comprehensive economic and trade agreement is an important one. In the coming weeks I will travel to Canada to discuss a trade agreement because the Irish agrifood industry has determined that Canada is a market in which it sees opportunities. Mercosur is a real challenge for Ireland, but trade is a two-way street. We cannot say we want to trade in all markets but that others cannot have access to any of ours. "Globalisation" is almost a dirty word, but this is the most globalised agrifood economy in the world and we are able to be successful. Hats off to the agrifood industry. Those involved in it are brilliant at seeking out market opportunities to sell our products.

While applying the same environmental standards.

Yes. Mercosur is a major challenge. There are member states of the European Union that are gung ho as they see the opportunities, but we see threats. However, in all trade agreements there are threats and opportunities. What we have to do is maximise the opportunities that present for us. The Senator seems to argue from the particular to the general, that because Mercosur is bad, all trade agreements are bad. It could be particularly challenging for the beef industry-----

Some trade agreements are good, some are bad.

-----but that is not a case for a retreat into an America First policy and the isolationism that the Senator seems to be articulating.

No; bad agreements are.

Our products are sold in 180 countries. We are trading in those markets by virtue of our membership of the European Union and able to benefit from the CETA, the EU-Japan trade agreement and a host of other agreements that are important to the agrifood industry. I am flabbergasted by the Senator's isolationist approach which does a disservice to the agrifood industry

The Minister is misrepresenting it.

Senators Tim Lombard and Pádraig Mac Lochlainn raised the very important issue of trying to attract more young people to enter agriculture. It is an issue that has bedevilled us since the days of the early retirement scheme and the installation aid scheme, but it is not a problem experienced exclusively in Ireland or the European Union as a whole; it is a global problem. Every country is facing the same challenges. Yesterday I met the New Zealand agriculture Minister and it was one of the issues that came up in passing. It is also an issue in other countries I have visited, but I have a sense that we are turning a corner. There is now a greater appreciation of the people who produce food. There is a greater interest globally in food provenance and respect for those who farm the land. That might help to turn the tide and make farming an attractive proposition for many, but we need innovation. Whether we look at it from the point of view of encouraging older farmers to get out of farming - we did this under the early retirement scheme and we also had the installation aid scheme and various iterations of different schemes - it is one of the major challenges. In the context of the next CAP, generational renewal will be an important element. To that end, I am interested in hearing Members' suggestions.

Senator Pádraig Mac Lochlainn referred to the agricultural markets task force. Again, this is really important because we export one third of our produce to the United Kingdom, one third to the rest of the European Union and one third to international markets outside it. We favour having a trans-European legal framework to deliver the best results for the primary producer, but that view is not universally shared. Other member states see it as a domestic competence and do not want to have a pan-European legal framework. There has been a public consultation process on the agricultural markets task force initiated by the Commission which is expected to bring forward proposals before May which we await with interest. Trying to ensure primary producers get a fairer crack of the whip has been an issue since Adam was a boy. In fact, if one looks at it, the two extremities of the supply chain are screwed when the squeeze comes on. The distributor, the retailer and even the processor all seem to have an untouchable proportion of the price, while the primary producer and the consumer very often are squeezed. Greater equity is required. I hope the agricultural markets task force, the public consultation process and the awaited Commission proposals will deliver. We did some work in the groceries and goods regulations of April 2016 on written contracts and to abolish hello money. It has had an impact, but given that we export 90% of what we produce, we need a European legal framework for that element of the market.

Senator Grace O'Sullivan made a specific point about the suckler cows figures, which are really interesting. Prior to the introduction of milk quotas in the early 1980s, we had about 400,000 suckler cows. We now have about 960,000. The reason for the growth in the intervening period is that dairy sector expansion was curtailed and people saw an opportunity to move into the suckler cow business. In fact, it was anticipated when the quota regime came to an end in 2015 that there would be a 30% reduction in suckler cow numbers.

The drop in the number of farmers who have moved away from suckler cows has been about 6% nationally but, from my recollection, the biggest drop has been in Waterford, with the second biggest in Kilkenny, the third biggest in Carlow and the fourth biggest in Cork. We could safely assume that has been primarily driven by farmers who had a dairy operation and decided they would expand their dairy herd at the expense of the second enterprise they had been running. Interestingly, there has not been a significant drop in the suckler cow numbers along the western seaboard. The overall national drop in numbers since 2015 has been about 6%. The biggest reduction has been 22% - 22% of what number is the interesting aspect - in Waterford, 9% in Cork, with the reductions in Carlow and Kilkenny being somewhere between those two percentages.

We are supporting suckler cow farmers very significantly under a programme called beef data and genomics. That programme is about improving the genetic merit of the herd, trying to make sure that we can finish cattle faster at a younger age through genetic improvement, improving herd fertility, etc. If farmers have more herd fertility, they are not carrying a suckler cow for perhaps 20 months between calvings rather than having a cow calve every calendar year or every 11 months which might be considered the optimum. We are putting a good deal of money into that. Off the top of my head, it is about €250 million or €300 million over the lifetime of the rural development programme. That is an important factor.

What has been called for is a coupled payment, on which we need to have an honest debate. In this context a coupled payment means that the more suckler cows farmers keep, the more money they will be paid. The challenge for the industry is to be able to get to market the beef progeny we have at a reasonable return. If we were to pay farmers, regardless of the quality, to keep extra numbers, we would drive numbers and cut across the improvements we are trying to make in quality through genetic improvement. Therefore, a coupled payment would be a retrograde step. The challenge with the growing dairy enterprise is to be able to manage the increased progeny that is feeding into the beef sector. We are doing work on increasing the number of calf exports in particular, which is addressing that problem. We have much more work to do in finding a progeny off the dairy expansion that is suitable for a beef purpose as well.

One matter I often lament - it is like a dialogue of the deaf and one might say it often happens in chambers such as this one - is that it is difficult to have a constructive dialogue between the dairy enterprise and the beef enterprise in Ireland. They seem to be of the mindset that ne'er the two should meet, whereas we have to develop some kind of a complementary offspring from the dairy herd that is suitable for the beef enterprise. I know there is a concern in the meat industry generally that the expansion of the dairy herd could be at the expense of quality in the beef sector. We need to work at that to make sure that the progeny is appropriate. At the same time we need to ensure that the suckler cow sector, which is an important backbone to the beef industry, in particular in the west, is supported. However, driving numbers through a coupled payment - which is the terminology used - where there is coupling whereby the more cows one has, the more one would be paid, would be the wrong system at this stage.

I have probably gone on too long but Senator Ó Clochartaigh raised an interesting issue around food waste. We must also consider the input waste that has gone into growing that food, which all feeds into the climate change debate. Many social entrepreneurs are involved in the issue of food waste such as FoodCloud, etc. It is probably reflective of the disposable society in which we live that we could buy a product today, put it in the fridge and two weeks later note we did not use it and decide to throw it out. We need to educate consumers and have a shorter journey between the consumers and retailers to ensure we minimise food waste. It is loading our carbon footprint as well. It is one of those areas on which we need to make progress.

Senator Conway-Walsh raised the issue of the appeals process. We recently got a report on a review of the independent appeals office. It is a very good report. The appeals office works very well for farmers. If they feel aggrieved about a decision by the Department they should be encouraged to explore the appeals option because its success rate is quite strong. I acknowledge the role played by the people who participated in the appeals review. Some of the report's recommendations will require legislative change to implement but, broadly speaking, I accept the thrust of it. I will be sending it to the Oireachtas committee and to the stakeholders for their feedback but it is a very good piece of work.

In principle, the appeals office does good work. I take the Senator's point about the process being slow. A four-year case would appear to be a wild exception and there may be circumstances around that. In respect of files, it is a little like what happens with the social welfare appeals office, when they leave my Department and are passed to the independent appeals office and I do not have any reach into the operation of the independent appeals office. It is an important process and delivers quite a lot.

On a point of order----

This is not a point of order and the Senator knows that.

-----it is wrong that the Department can re-appeal the appeals office's decision.

I did not let any other Member in on a clarification issue. I am sure the Minister will facilitate the Senator's inquiry afterwards.

I could argue that point. Everybody has to have a fair crack of the whip and that includes the Department and the State. Obviously, people who are dissatisfied with the outcome of an appeals process have recourse to the Ombudsman's office as well. The Department may ask the director to review a decision of the appeals office but there are extremely rare cases. It is only in cases where the consequences often have policy implications far beyond the individual case. One could probably list on one hand the number of times that has happened. The outcome is nonetheless independent. It is at arm's length from the Department.

If the Senator were to reflect on the suggestion that the Department should not have that recourse, she should bear in mind that everybody must have a fair crack of the whip in terms of policy implications, budgetary implications and compliance with Common Agricultural Policy rules. A situation may arise where the Department is strongly of the view that there has been an error and that is why that opportunity exists and it is provided for by law. We are only implementing a system that is provided for in statute. Some of the recommendations may require changes to the law and I am not ruling that out at all, but it is a very good report. I emphasise that the appeals office works well and it works well for farmers. If they feel aggrieved about a decision, they should be encouraged to use the appeals option.

Senator Feighan commented on the fodder scheme. I covered that issue in my earlier comments. I hope I have dealt with all the points that were raised.

I raised the issue of the pensions anomaly in the farm assist scheme.

I will refer it to my colleague, the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, as it is not my area of competence.

I would make the point that we were required to allow the Minister a minimum of five minutes to reply but he has used almost 28 minutes. Therefore, we have had a fairly good level of discussion. I listened to various Senators' names being referenced in the conversation and most Members have had most of their points tackled. I thank the Minister and all the participating Senators for their input.

I propose that the House suspends until 5 p.m.

Sitting suspended at 4.50 p.m. and resumed at 5 p.m.