I propose to take Questions Nos. 218 and 224 together.
I am acutely aware of the difficulties being experienced by some farmers as a result of recent unseasonable weather. Difficult conditions experienced on farms last summer have been compounded by an extended winter.
It is also the case that farmers have increased the usage of concentrates to fill the fodder “gap”. Whilst addressing the fodder issue, this has, in some cases, resulted in problems with cash flow and access to working capital on farms.
Access to credit is crucial at this time and flexibility from both banks and merchants is vital. I have been speaking to banks to highlight the challenges facing farmers as a result of the weather, and insisting they take a flexible approach to dealing with short term credit issues. I will also be meeting with the Banking Federation and other banks next week. I have also been in contact with Co-Ops and grain and feed merchants to urge them to be flexible during this difficult time.
This is an occasion when solidarity is needed among the farming community. I would ask those that have fodder to be proactive in making it available to neighbouring farmers who are encountering severe problems. I am aware that the farm bodies are working locally to assess whether there are farmers who have surplus fodder in stock and I commend them for these efforts.
I am receiving daily updates from Teagasc on the situation and I have asked that for this crucial period, top priority is given to supporting farmers in need of assistance.
In relation to the measures which can be taken to alleviate the problems on farms, I would urge farmers to contact their local Teagasc advisor. Where winter fodder is limited, Teagasc is providing specific advice and assistance on how to cope with the consequences of the weather conditions experienced this Spring. Staff at all Teagasc offices are available to provide advice to farmers over the phone and the fodder situation is a constant topic of focus at Discussions group meetings and other farm walks and events. Agriculture advisers are equipped and ready to outline the options open to farmers facing difficulties and to make a plan that best suits their situation.
Teagasc has also made extensive use of national and local media to provide farmers with advice and has co-ordinated with farm organisations, marts, local authorities, co-ops and other suppliers to provide targeted advice to all who need it. Advice for farmers on coping with fodder shortages has also been published, including guidelines to dairy and drystock farmers with little or no grass on feeding this spring.
I have also announced an extension to 15 May, 2013 for closing off of Traditional Hay Meadow in Agri – Environment Options Scheme (AEOS) allowing a deferral of one month to the closing off date. This will help to maximise grass utilisation in this critical recovery period as the weather improves and grass growth resumes.
I fully appreciate and acknowledge that farmers are currently under financial pressure, however the outlook for our livestock sectors remains positive and that prices are relatively strong.
There is no doubt that the availability of forage on farms is an on-going challenge. The improvement in soil temperatures over the last week is very welcome and should see a return to more normal growth rates for grass and crops alike, and this, together with relatively positive market conditions should see a significant improvement in the situation on farms over the coming weeks. That said, the challenges facing farmers at this particular time should not be underestimated and all available advice from public and private sources should be availed of on how best to manage individual situations being experienced.