Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Wednesday, 29 Apr 2009

Conservation Issues: Discussion with Conservation Agriculture Ireland.

One behalf of the joint committee, I welcome the members of Conservation Agriculture Ireland to discuss conservation issues in Irish agriculture. We are joined by Mr. Gerry Bird, chairman; Mr. John Geraghty, general secretary; Ms Avril Rothwell, director; Ms Jane Smith, Mr. Julian Hughes and Mr. Tom Shortt. I compliment Mr. Geraghty on his presentation at the climate change conference. I was not there but members were very impressed by his presentation.

Before I call on the delegates to make their presentation, I draw their attention to the fact that while members of the committee have absolute privilege, the same privilege does not apply to witnesses appearing before the committee. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. I invite Mr. Geraghty to make his opening presentation.

That means Mr. Geraghty cannot tell us what he thinks of us.

Mr. John Geraghty

It was not Deputy Creed I was thinking about.

I thank the joint committee for inviting us to make a presentation. I note this opportunity has arisen from the presentation on climate change which we made in Dublin Castle in January. Today's presentation will encompass some aspects of that presentation, but we will broaden it to give more information on developments internationally and apply it in terms of what we propose we could do in Ireland.

Conservation Agriculture Ireland was founded in 2003 by farmers — particularly crop producers — for farmers in Ireland. We considered that there was a need for us to work together and facilitate a process of awareness about sustainable soil management, an issue in which we became particularly interested in the early 2000s. We run farmer meetings annually; we have one or two technical meetings during the winter months, at which scientific experts make presentations to farmers, as well as one or two practical field meetings during the spring and summer dealing with aspects of conservation in agriculture of practical benefit to farmers. We produce a quarterly newsletter, and I sent the clerk to the committee a copy of the spring edition last month for distribution to the committee members. Included in the newsletter are topics of relevance to members, including reports on the legislative developments in Ireland and in Europe.

In recent years we have organised farmer visits abroad, mainly to the UK, to visit no-tillage farmers and practitioners of conservation systems in Cambridge, Lincoln and Essex. The development of these systems is at an advanced stage in the United Kingdom and across Europe compared with Ireland. Why would we wish to raise awareness about soil management? In excess of 95% of the cropping area in Ireland is run on a plough-based system. With a plough-based system we carry out soil inversion, which puts oxygen into the soil. The effect of that is to encourage biological oxidation, an effective burning of organic matter. One of the by-products of that is carbon dioxide which, together with fuel emissions from tractors, are contributory greenhouse gases which we are told by experts cause climate change. At its extremes climate change leads to flooding and drought instances. A report launched two days ago predicts what the effects of these would be for agriculture and other sectors in this country.

The burning of organic matter is critical. Organic matter helps land deal with excess rainfall or excess drought. Organic matter holds 90% of its own weight in water and prevents soil from drying out. This will be hugely important, as Professor John Sweeney has predicted, during the wetter winters and drier summers in the east of the country. Another aspect to organic matter that is hugely important relates to natural fertility of the soil. When we take organic matter out we are forced to use extra fertilisers, particularly nitrogen fertilisers. This leads to increased nitrous oxide emissions, another greenhouse gas. The depletion of natural soil fertility means farmers are forced to use more inputs to achieve good yields, and the cycle starts again.

By any evaluation, either practical or scientific, this is an unsustainable system. However, it is the foundation stone of crop production here. The slide shows how the depletion of organic matter looks in the field. Committee members might think these two soil samples came from different counties or fields but they are from the same field. The sample on the left is from a field margin while the sample on the right is from 5 m away in what was intensively cultivated soil over a 15-year period. Under laboratory analysis the two soil types are exactly the same — they have the same percentages of sand, silt and clay. However, there is a difference. The soil on the left, which has not been intensively cultivated, has 60% more organic matter than the soil sample on the right. This gradual depletion of these organic matter reserves has been happening in intensive continuous tillage systems for over a decade.

If one examines crop production systems worldwide, they can be divided into three in terms of crop establishment. There is the plough-based system, which is predominant in Ireland. It involves inversion tillage. We turn soil over to a depth of more than six inches; in many instances it is over nine inches. It is greater than 15 cm or 20 cm. The soil is turned and intensively cultivated and what is left is bare soil while the crop is establishing. One of the features of the system is monoculture where we have continuous wheat or continuous spring barley production. Another feature that has been developing over the last decade and a half is a dependence on high inputs with this system.

The second system is a minimum tillage system. Internationally it is called conservation tillage. This is where we cultivate the ground but we do not turn the soil over. We do shallow cultivations and when the cultivations are finished, ideally there should be greater than 30% soil cover to protect the soil with straw, as members can see from the photograph. Depending on how the system is operated, there can be high or low inputs over time.

The final system, which is increasing globally on an annual basis, is no-tillage, and this is called conservation agriculture. In this system there are no cultivations. There is minimum soil disturbance; the only disturbance that takes place is for the actual placement of seed in the soil. Specific equipment and drills are required to do it. When one is finished sowing there should be greater than 60% soil cover. Soil cover is hugely important both to protect the soil and to maintain soil organic matter levels. The feature of the system is that one must use rotations. That includes the use of cover crops during fallow periods, when there is no cash crop growing in the soil. In practical terms, we would harvest the spring crop in the autumn, grow a cover crop from the autumn through to the following spring and then re-establish a spring crop. That is the practical sequence under the Irish system.

If we change from a plough-based to a minimum tillage or no-tillage system, certain things might happen. There might be a drop in yield for the first year or two. Sometimes, depending on how we manage the soil, water relations can deteriorate for a short period of time. Organic matter will be maintained and will increase over time, depending on the conservation practices one implements. Biological activity and biodiversity in the soil will increase significantly once one stops the excessive soil disturbance. Teagasc has been researching these systems, particularly minimum tillage, over the past ten years in Oakpark and the negative drop has not happened. In fact, yields have been maintained. That is the main criterion on which farmers would evaluate the system. Over ten years of research in Teagasc yields have been maintained with the system, along with significant cost reductions.

I do not know if Deputy Mattie McGrath from Tipperary South is present but my home town is Clonmel. The photograph I am showing the committee was taken since the meeting was held in Dublin Castle in January. It shows flooding in Clonmel, a regular occurrence. The newspaper reports and television and radio broadcasts come from the urban areas. They discuss the significant costs that accrue to the local council, civil defence and the emergency services as a result of flooding.

When this happened in Clonmel, a few of us conducted a tour around the catchment area of the Suir. The photograph shows what we saw. There was water flowing out from fields. The colour of the water means there is also soil erosion. This is a widespread happening, particularly during extreme weather events. The water runs across fields and collects at the sides. It causes gullying or rilling, as we call it technically, across wheat fields that were established the previous autumn. The other photograph is another example of this. All the attention is on flood damage and emergency services but there is not enough attention on mitigation.

By changing land practices, we can significantly reduce the amount of water flowing into the main streams and rivers that cause these problems during extreme weather events. The recent report stated that in years to come the Suir, Blackwater and Barrow will experience these events on a more regular basis.

I do not have an aerial photograph from Ireland but I have one from Malvern in Worcestershire in the United Kingdom. This photographs depicts what it looks like there. It was taken in autumn 2007, but it is not just a question of the flooding. Members should look at the colour of the water. When organic matter is taken out of soil, soil structure is disrupted and that leads to the breaking apart of soil particles which are easily carried away through surface water run-off during these extreme weather events.

It does not have to be like that. This photograph is of work that Gerry Bird and myself were doing in Meath a number of years ago. It is the same field on the same farm two years apart. In terms of the difference between what happened on the left and on the right, on the left is plough-based agriculture, with poor soil structure and water collecting in a lower part of the field. In terms of the right hand side, we stopped the plough-based system and put in a cover crop, changed the rotation and put in oilseed rape. This is the subsequent wheat after the oilseed rape yet with the same amount of rainfall in the preceding days, we get better holding of water that has fallen.

Soil cover for conservation is hugely important. This is a common phenomenon in greater Europe. In other words, the cover crops are used as productively as cash crops would be used but they are used to protect the soil and benefit soil health and nutrition for the benefit of the succeeding crop. Cover crops and green cover are a vital component of sustainable crop production, and that can be seen both globally and in European terms nearer to home. Education in the practical commercial use at research extension and farmer level is urgently required. It is provided for under the nitrates directive but farmers have received very little training in these areas.

When we move away from this intensive cultivation, soil biodiversity is increased in terms of earthworm numbers. There is an impressive positive effect from earthworm activity in soils. Dr. Rothwell is one of the leading people in Europe in terms of research in these areas. She has conducted a PhD on different cultivation systems and earthworm numbers and will be able to provide the committee with more information during the discussion.

In addition to that, when we improve organic matter levels in the soil many other biodiversity aspects occur. There is greater bacterial, fungal and soil faunal activity, which has improved benefits for succeeding crops that are grown.

This photograph was taken in County Meath and shows a small cover crop of oilseed rape. In fact, it is volunteer oilseed rape that was left on the ground after the harvest of the main crop, but the oilseed rape is covering the ground. We note the improvement in organic matter from the presence of mushrooms or the reproductive phase of a fungal population but in practical terms this has major benefits for the farmer because in this instance the farmer can come in and drill a crop directly into the standing cover crop. There is no ploughing or time involved. The labour is reduced and there are massive reductions in diesel — by up to 70% in this instance — with an associated reduction in costs but all that we need is to highlight these areas and educate farmers in the way these types of practices can be used for profitable crop production.

Regarding the diesel consumption aspect, under a plough-based system, and we are using figures from Dermot Forristal's work in Oak Park, Carlow, 85 litres per hectare are used for the production of, say, a winter wheat crop. Under minimum tillage that would be reduced to 60 litres a hectare and under no tillage it would be further reduced to 45 litres a hectare. When diesel is burned we are producing carbon dioxide emissions, approximately 3 kilos for every litre of diesel we burn.

Carbon dioxide emissions, which we want to reduce under our Kyoto obligations, are dramatically reduced by moving towards conservation systems. We can reduce them depending on the types of conservation systems we put in place. The orange bars on the slide represent minimum tillage and the green bars represent no tillage. We are talking about tens of thousands of tonnes of carbon dioxide reduced by a move towards these conservation practices.

Conservation Agriculture Ireland is part of a greater network throughout Europe. There are 15 member organisations in the European Conservation Agriculture Federation, and further information can be got from that website, but that brings us into contact with researchers in these areas in those different countries and, more importantly, with farmer practitioners in other parts of Europe.

Globally, conservation agriculture is now practised as far south as the Falkland Islands, through the Equator, Kenya, Uganda, and as far north as Finland. With regard to rainfall, it is worked in semi-arid areas, for example, in Namibia, to areas of the most intensive and heavy rainfall instances such as Chile and southern Brazil in South America, where the rainfall can be in excess of 3,000 millimetres, even more than we experience in Ireland.

Furthermore, conservation agriculture is practised on different soil types. In Australia, it is practised on 95% sands whereas in southern Brazil it can be practised on 85% clays. Some people in this country believe that either Ireland's climate or soil type is not conducive for these systems but the evidence from the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation is testimony to the opposite being the case.

We have links with people in North America, Canada, throughout South America and Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Asia, Kazakhstan, China and up to Scandinavia giving practical evidence that these systems are operating well. They are slightly different among different countries but farmers are benefiting and the evidence, after 30 years' experience and research findings, is testament that society and the environment is benefiting as well.

Conservation agriculture has increased year on year and at the end of 2008 there were 105 million hectares globally devoted to these practices. There was no tillage, cultivation or disturbance of soil involved.

Nearer to Europe — I will show the table in graph format because it is easier to see — among all those countries Ireland has the lowest rate of adoption, not alone of no tillage but of minimum tillage compared with other countries that are members of the European Conservation Agriculture Federation. The United Kingdom is shown in the blue graph on the right hand side. A total of 50% of the arable area in the United Kingdom is non-plough based and, in addition, 3% to 4% of that is no tillage. Switzerland, which has the same arable area — approximately 400,000 hectares — has in excess of 25% of reduced cultivations or minimum tillage and approximately 3% to 4% of no tillage. Meanwhile, Ireland has less than 3% minimum tillage.

I was asked to outline initiatives ongoing in European countries where conservation agriculture practice adoption has been greater than it has been in Ireland. I refer to these four federal states in Germany. There are a total of 15 and in all 15 states conservation measures are being adopted. A common objective among those different initiatives is the reduction in intensive soil cultivation, the promotion of soil cover, and the adoption of non-inversion tillage, or minimum and no tillage, with varying subsidies for farmers who take up those particular practices. It would be similar to a specific rural environment protection, REP, scheme for tillage operators.

Spain has a bonus system to eliminate and reduce soil erosion over 50% of the arable area. Depending on the practice that a farmer adopts, he gets an incremental subsidy from the Spanish Government for adoption of these services and systems, the essence being that these services are of benefit to the greater society and to the Government in terms of full compliance with environmental legislation.

Similarly, in Portugal there are subsidies for stubble conservation on the soil surface, the use of cover crops and straw conservation, which is leaving straw on the soil surface, because there is a major environmental benefit. When these subsidies were introduced and once they were supported by the Portuguese Government, there was a dramatic increase in the uptake of conservation systems. Between 2004 and 2005 alone there was a 111% increase in uptake.

Outside the European Union, even Switzerland is supporting conservation systems. It has a similar nitrates directive in the Berne province. Farmers there also receive subsidy payments, funded by the national exchequer, for different crops under a REPS-type initiative for adopting minimum and no tillage enterprises.

In these different countries we see the effect the support from central government has had for the uptake of these systems. In Ireland, with little support other than a supplementary measure in the REPS 4, there has not been the same degree of official support, education or training at farmer level.

Conservation agriculture developed in Ireland between 2000 and 2007 when we last conducted a survey. We are due to conduct another one in the coming months. It has risen from 2,000 hectares to slightly in excess of 10,000 hectares. In the initial years, support came from the commercial sector in the promotion of these systems. We were able to deliver an on-farm extension service at ground level. We were able to bring together farmers who were practising these systems so that they could learn from one another. Since then, funding ceased and there has been a drop-off in the uptake of these systems. On a county basis, the 10,000 hectares in the system are spread evenly among the crop-growing areas from Louth to west Cork. The greatest amount of minimum tillage practice is in operation in counties Kilkenny and Wexford.

Conservation Agriculture Ireland is a voluntary organisation. Its annual budget is between €2,500 and €3,000, funded exclusively by farmer members like Tom Shortt, Julian Hughes and Jane Smith. We have made submissions to the Government on the nitrates directive, to the Office of Public Works on flood mitigation, to the Department on cross-compliance and to this committee with regard to the productive use of modulated funds. We attended the committee in May 2005. As a result of that meeting, the then Vice Chairman, Deputy Hoctor, organised a visit with farmers in north Tipperary. On the strength of that meeting, she organised a meeting with the then Minister for Agriculture and Food, Deputy Coughlan, at which we brought some of this information to her attention.

We have briefed several Deputies and Irish MEPs on the development of soils legislation at EU level. We are also in regular contact with European Commission officials, especially those in the environment directorate general, DG, responsible for implementation of the soils directive and who developed a soils thematic strategy published in October 2006.

Back at home, we have briefed officials in the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, and the Environmental Protection Agency. However, it is difficult to identify the key focal person in any of these agencies responsible for soil and environmental legislation and policy development. We do the best we can considering the funding we have.

The main impediment to conservation agriculture practices is little or no official support or encouragement. A supplementary measure is contained in REPS 4 but it alone is insufficient. It does signify a reaffirmation from the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food that there are environmental benefits to the systems we are promoting.

There is, however, poor knowledge levels for the successful extension initiatives. The best form of extension is farmer to farmer, to give a practising farmer to one who is thinking of adopting conservation practices. Mr. Gerry Bird, Dr. Rothwell and I try to facilitate this process on behalf of the farmer members of CAIR. However, CAIR has limited resources with only farmer subscriptions, giving it an annual budget of €3,000. All our work is voluntary. Despite this, we adhere to the latest global scientific and technological developments in this field.

For farmers, there is a concern about the capital cost of entry into conservation and for the purchase of suitable equipment. Farmers are also unsure of the best approach towards adopting conservation. In different counties with different soil types, there are slight variations in the best approach. There is a strong conventional ploughing tradition and prejudice towards it in Ireland. While we have a culture of ploughing, in North and South America the culture is one of not ploughing. This cannot be changed overnight. Through education and increasing awareness, however, we can move slowly towards this practice. The lack of a support scheme to increase adoption rates is also an impediment.

Official support must be given to conservation agricultural initiatives. The joint committee could be a great help in this regard. It will not just be agriculture that will benefit. There is a cross-linkage with other initiatives such as those in nitrates, the environment, soils, biodiversity, climate change and flood mitigation. The committee could decide to instigate significant changes in agricultural production processes which could benefit farmers and greater society.

Legislation should be complemented with education. Not just in Ireland but in other countries, legislation is introduced but there is no training package associated with it. Understandably, there will be resistance if people do not understand the reason behind the legislation. Farmers need to understand that conservation practices actually equal farm profit. What is required is a concurrent conservation agriculture support scheme with well-thought out initiatives that are farmer friendly and which will increase adoption and uptake rates. We believe the productive use of modulated funds arising from the tillage sector could be redistributed to those farmers who agree to adopt conservation practices. Everyone will gain from this. It is one of those rare occasions where it is win-win for the farmer, society and the environment.

I thank Mr. Geraghty for a comprehensive presentation.

I welcome Mr. Geraghty and his colleagues from Conservation Agriculture Ireland. I had the benefit of a similar presentation in Dublin Castle recently. The key to selling the idea is something that appeared in one of the final slides: the fact that conservation equals profit. Of course, it also has associated environmental benefits. It might be perceived that conservation practices are environmentally the right thing to do but are less profitable, whereas in fact they are more profitable. We must challenge and break down that mindset so that conservation becomes mainstreamed in agricultural practice.

I am enthusiastic about conservation practices. I come from a farming background, although not a tillage background, so I do not have the in-depth knowledge of the tillage sector Mr. Geraghty conveyed in his presentation. I acknowledge, however, that we must start by challenging the mindset. In essence, we can do that by financially incentivising conservation agriculture. We have a window of opportunity to do that in the unspent Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, funds, but it might close very quickly. I suggest to the Chairman that if it is not too late — we are certainly at the 12th hour — the committee should make representations to the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Minister on those unspent funds. God knows there is no shortage of bidders for them, but given the holistic benefits that accrue to farmers — not just financial benefits but environmental ones — the committee should argue that farmers would benefit financially were they switch to conservation agriculture and that the unspent CAP funds should be used to incentivise them to do so.

Farmers should have to sign up for a minimum of five years because there is an initial troublesome period and I suspect many people might try to back out in years one or two because of associated problems with weed control and so on. I heard Conservation Agriculture Ireland's response to that previously at Dublin Castle and I understand the problems can be overcome after a committed period.

The scheme must apply to additional acreage. I do not seek to penalise people, but if a scheme is introduced it must help not only those who are already committed to the system but those who take on additional commitments. We must grow the pot rather than just encouraging people who are already in it. That is my simple suggestion.

Mentoring will be a critical issue for people who enter the scheme. Conservation Agriculture Ireland is best placed to provide a mentoring structure of farmer discussion groups and whatever other mechanisms can be used. Mentoring has worked effectively in the dairy and beef sectors and there is no reason it cannot work in the conservation agriculture sector, possibly incentivised through the grants scheme.

Conservation agriculture is a no-brainer, to use a term that has had currency in the committee before. It is profitable agriculture. It is more profitable and it is doing the right thing by the environment. The committee should support it. We should not underestimate the mindset that is hostile to the concept, but if it can be shown that it is more profitable, farmers will respond. At the end of the day, farmers are practical people. I agree we need to address associated capital costs such as machinery costs, but it is not beyond the scope of the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to devise a scheme, even if it has to be a cross-departmental initiative with the Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government which leads on tackling climate change emissions. I take the point that was made about flooding. The benefits of conservation agriculture go beyond the farm gate and it is something that we should do.

I propose to the Chairman that, perhaps in consultation with Mr. Geraghty and Conservation Agriculture Ireland, we should formulate a proposal to the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and give conservation agriculture the imprimatur of the committee. Even if we do not come up with a detailed pilot scheme, we should state that the committee supports the principle that a proportion of the unspent CAP funds should be ring-fenced for an initiative in the area.

I will seek agreement to that proposal at the end of the meeting.

I have another meeting at 12 o'clock, so I will have to leave in the next couple of minutes.

I do not think the committee has a problem with the proposal in any case. I will take all the members before coming back to the delegation, if that is okay.

Mr. John Geraghty

Absolutely. That is fine.

I thank the delegation for coming here today and I thank Mr. Geraghty for his presentation. I was impressed by the arguments he led. I have the benefit of coming from a small farming background. In particular, I have been involved in tillage since the 1960s and 1970s when it was less intensive than it is now and a lot of the fertiliser that was used was organic. I come from a coastal community and we used seaweed——

Exactly, and farm manure. Much of the damage that is done to our environment has come about through the intensification of farming and the fact that nitrates and various other fertilisers are added to drive crops and get the best possible result.

Mr. Geraghty mentioned soil erosion and showed us graphic slides about the floods last year. It is evident to those of us from rural communities that where there is a shallow soil base or mud rather than anything else, it is possible to see the soil being washed away during heavy rainfall. I know many areas where the land has been neglected and no effort has been made to allow the water to escape down through the soil or mud. Instead, it takes the surface away.

I support Deputy Creed's proposal that the committee should make representations on conservation to the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. We need an initiative for people in the agricultural sector so that they see and understand that conservation practices will be cost beneficial to them and will not impinge on the output of their crops. I also suggest that agricultural colleges should be involved. I do not know whether that has happened. Does Conservation Agriculture Ireland have any input to the colleges? If the young farmers coming through had the opportunity to listen, through the goodwill of the agricultural colleges, conservation would be a part of the training process. If there was more co-operation and commitment, the students could learn about the practical benefits of conservation practices.

If Conservation Agriculture Ireland wants to convince the agriculture sector, which is culturally a very traditional sector, it must explain the practical benefits of conservation so that people understand them. We heard in the presentation that one reason there is such a low uptake of conservation farming practices is that they have to be knowledge-based and the knowledge is not there. It is important to reach as many people as possible in the traditional agricultural tillage sector. Are there imaginative ways in which we can do that? I hope there will be incentives such as a grants system and also an education programme supported by the Department, especially for younger people. It is difficult to change people who are set in their ways and have been doing things in traditional ways all their lives. It is important, therefore, to work with the younger farmers coming through.

I read this document this morning. I was very impressed with what it stated about emissions from tractors and so forth. When farmers are ploughing, rotavating or power hoeing, the tractor is under considerable pressure and a lot of emissions go into the environment and in turn get transferred back into the soil. I would like to see how it works and I ask Mr. Geraghty to enlighten me. I am trying to visualise how it works. It is putting energy back into the soil that is there for the benefit of crop production and so forth.

Mr. Geraghty mentioned cover crops. What type of cover crops protect the soil? I commend Conservation Agriculture Ireland on the argument made this morning. It is commendable that the organisation is basically voluntary. I wish it well. I fully support what Deputy Creed has said about proposals to work from here.

I congratulate Mr. Geraghty on the finest presentation I have seen since I joined this committee. It was very well put. We might all learn from the fact that Conservation Agriculture Ireland operates on a €3,000 budget. Coming from a farming background in west County Cork I would have knowledge of tillage, though perhaps not to the same extent as my colleague, Deputy Aylward, who is a Kilkenny man. While we have not thought much about it in the past, everything Mr. Geraghty said rang a bell. With the movement in the soil, etc., the way Mr. Geraghty puts it makes considerable sense. Given everything he said about the saving, from every point of view it is a win-win situation.

We all know it is very hard to teach an old dog new tricks. I had one experience of direct sowing of grass seeds. It was not a success. There may be several reasons for that. Based on Mr. Geraghty's presentation it is clear the organisation has done considerable work on this issue. If all the information we have heard this morning is correct — I have no reason to believe it is not — then the committee has a role to play in advancing it. I believe the committee would be unanimous in this regard. What Conservation Agriculture Ireland is doing is essential for the future. While the old practices might have served us well in the past we must look to the future. There are several aspects to what Mr. Geraghty pointed out to the committee. There is the carbon side as well as the savings to the farmer. At the end of the day it comes down to what farmers have in their pockets. Based on what Mr. Geraghty has said, from every aspect there is a saving.

My only word of caution relates to the new equipment that the farmer would need to buy to do this work. We have seen this in the past with new equipment bought to harvest beet and the next thing the beet crop was gone. There is a small danger in that regard. When farmers pay out money like that they like to look ahead further than a few years. We might need to take the process a little more slowly. I fully agree that we need to target young farmers — those going to college and coming into farming — if we want to achieve something in this regard. While we would hope that older farmers would come on board with us, young farmers are looking for new ways and new ideas. This is one approach that definitely merits support and is worth trying. When we meet the Minister and departmental officials, I will do everything I can to try to get this off the ground.

I welcome Mr. Geraghty and his colleagues. I am startled by the revelations from their research. As someone else has said, it is a no-brainer. I live near Clonmel. In recent years those of us who have been members of the local authority cannot believe the severe surface water flooding we have been getting. There has certainly been heavier rainfall, but it is a problem. The graph that has been presented of the two soil types, one taken from the side of the field and one from where the intensive tillage has taken place, brings home to all of us the effects that intensive tillage can have. I agree with Deputy Christy O'Sullivan that one asks a busy person if one wants to get some work done.

I compliment Conservation Agriculture Ireland on the research it has done without any backup from the State or any other organisation. I have been a severe critic of all the quangos, boards and layers of State bureaucracy we have. It is refreshing to see such research brought forward by a group of ordinary people voluntarily in their own time and with a small number of donations from concerned people within the agricultural sector. Considerable money is being spent in Clonmel alone to try to reduce the risk of flooding. I may be a pessimist and I hate saying this but I honestly believe we will not be able to control that water because it is very hard to control water in a valley. We are spending millions, probably billions, of euro around the country. While the systems that have been in place over the years served us well, why the big difference now? While I know much development has taken place, obviously the land usage is vital.

I will need to leave the meeting shortly as a group of businesspeople from the south east is waiting outside. Has the cessation of the beet crop made any difference? That was deep rooted crop that required a deep plough. I was often involved in that work and still am to some extent.

Deputy Christy O'Sullivan is correct in saying that we need to get young farmers on board. Farmers in general care for mother nature and the ground. It is just a matter of being properly informed and educated. The savings in the fuel alone might make up for the cost of changing equipment. A machine passes over a field so many times for a particular crop that I see it as a win-win situation. I compliment Conservation Agriculture Ireland from the bottom of my heart. It behoves us as a committee to do as Deputy Creed said and bring this matter wherever we need to bring it. I know the committee is meeting the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food this week. We need to start, otherwise it will be too late. I again thank the deputation.

I welcome the delegation and congratulate Conservation Agriculture Ireland on doing something voluntarily rather than being paid. I compliment it on bringing this matter forward on its own initiative.

I come from County Kilkenny which is highly dependent on tillage, particularly winter barley, winter crops and spring crops. What we are talking about is stopping ploughing and turning over soil, and the erosion of the soil. Our guests are proposing that ploughing not be undertaken annually, as is the tradition, but that one sow by stitching or direct seeding. My county will witness the same amount of tillage, as farmers grow corn crops full-time. As stated, there are costs involved, for machinery, for example. At the end of the day, it is a matter of profit. Have our guests researched whether corn can be sown and reaped, without ploughing, while delivering the same return on tillage crops?

When one ploughs land, water lodges in fields. Due to the changes in climate in recent years, there has been increased rainfall. Soil that is ploughed and disturbed absorbs water more quickly than land that is left untouched. I am a permanent pasture farmer and, like my colleague, reseed directly. Sometimes it works and sometimes it does not. However, more research has been done and the process is improving everyday. I welcome this. If there is a different system which allows us to continue to use our farming methods and retain the same profits, particularly on tillage crops, I would like to know more about it. Conservation, sustainable soil management and lower CO2 emissions are welcome. We will need to teach this method to young farmers. Since it is being used across Europe, we have fallen behind.

I compliment our guests on their presentation. I hope we can learn from and influence the system used.

I thank Mr. Geraghty and his colleagues. I chatted with him after his presentation in Dublin Castle in January.

The bottom line is whether the method is profitable and practical. The same could be asked of anything we do. For example, is organic farming profitable and practical on a large scale? If so and were its impact beneficial, we would need to focus on introducing it to the mainstream of agricultural practice and education.

I have done a quick sum. Approximately 121 kg of carbon is saved per hectare on the 10,000 hectares in question, amounting to 1.21 million kg. This is an indication of what could be saved. The prime mover should be the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, but the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and, to a lesser extent, the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources should be tuned into the whole-farming practice. It must be put on Teagasc's radar in terms of research and training, as Deputy Ferris stated. It must be introdued to the mainstream of policy maker's thinking, which the committee is supposedly trying to inform.

Regarding the best way to demonstrate the method, the point has been made that, when television cameras film a flood, the operators do not go to a flooded field. Rather, they go to the town affected. Clonmel and its problems are too large to be the subject of a pilot project. If the benefits of this type of agricultural conservation are to be brought home, our guests must identify a miniature Clonmel. This is not to blame agriculture for the problem of flooding.

Mr. John Geraghty

I would not do that.

That cannot be the message. We must identify a catchment area in which tillage accounts for a high proportion of farming activity and work with those involved. The committee was shown a photograph of a farm covering a period of two years, but progress will not be made any sooner than over a three or four year period. If a photograph covering a longer period is used for demonstration purposes in a pilot scheme area, our guests will start to make a fundamental difference.

Stitched into this matter is the question of profit. The changeover of equipment poses a problem; one cannot expect it to be done overnight. When farmers made changes previously, they did not decide to sell all of their old equipment. Rather, they replaced it to determine the benefits from the profit and conservation points of view.

Deputy Ferris asked what the cover crops were. I presume that root crop cultivation and production such as potatoes, swedes and so on are not a part of this method but would form part of a rotation system. Our guests are not claiming that everything cannot be ploughed, but there is no way of ensuring production other than via deep cultivation.

When I heard the presentation at Dublin Castle, I suggested the committee would like to hear it so as to bring the matter into focus in the Oireachtas. I will assist in any way I can, but our guests must identify and receive funding and support for a good sized pilot study area. They must also bring the three Departments on board. The method would be of benefit to everyone. Tomorrow we shall meet Professor Gerry Boyle, director of Teagasc, to discuss the rationalisation plans for Teagasc offices. Given the opportunity, perhaps the committee should question him on the issue.

It is a pleasure for me to be present and digest some of the points made. The greatest barrier will be encountered in selling this to young farmers. Our guests will not be able to change elderly farmers who have developed life-long patterns in ploughing fields. We must get this message across to the agricultural colleges, the young farmers attending them and Teagasc's advisers. Perhaps our guests' plan would work well on good soil, but what about the blue till soil evident on every peninsula? Such soil poses many problems. It is not of sufficient depth to pursue the farming method in question. No young farmer will revert to use of the horse and plough. Forty years ago one saw such ploughing methods; there were no emissions from tractors, but every farmer now has a superpowered tractor and is contributing to emissions. However, when nine or ten aeroplanes pass over my peninsula in south-west Cork——

They do not stop for the Deputy.

I have three peninsulas. When I see aeroplanes overhead, I wonder why we are discussing emissions from tractors and cars compared with the levels aeroplanes are shooting out. One can see streaks of pollution from their tails. Until such time as this is counteracted, I do not know why we are discussing emissions from modern tractors used to plough land.

We also have a history of being the only country which has very successful ploughing matches operated by farmers throughout the country. Nature provides for itself in that respect. It is fine in the fertile lands of Limerick, Kilkenny and Tipperary. I come back to the flooding problem in Clonmel, and it is a pity Deputy Mattie McGrath has left. I remember when I went to the sheep dipping committee meeting in Clonmel approximately 40 years ago that the slopes of Slievenamon were a terrific grazing area for sheep. Some 20 years later, all the slopes of Slievenamon had been ploughed and had grass growing on them. Naturally enough, they had been drained and reclaimed. That is the primary cause of the flooding in Clonmel, which is a basin. At one time the water from the mountains, which is now lodging in the valleys, was absorbed by the soil on the slopes of Slievenamon. I refer to land reclamation grants and so on. Perhaps it is man defeating himself.

How will one control weeds in parts of rural Ireland with thin soil? The weed is a problem and if one does not plough, I do not know how one can control it. It is fine in the fertile plains of the Golden Vale where one need only scratch the surface and put down a seed for it to bloom. I cannot see that working in two thirds of the country but it is well worth trying.

I congratulate Conservation Agriculture Ireland on bringing such knowledge to us. Perhaps this will work. As people know, 150 years ago, there was no horse and plough and people had to dig with a spade. That was in the pre-Famine years. It is no wonder there were 8.5 million people in Ireland at that time. The Famine came and wiped out most of them.

Nature plays a vital role in agricultural development. The problem will be selling this policy to the farming community. Conservation Agriculture Ireland must get it accepted in the agricultural colleges and by Teagasc advisers. Has it discussed it with Teagasc advisers?

In regard to changes in the climate, what would suit Spain and Portugal would not suit this country because of the difference between the climate here and that in Spain and Portugal as well as in Germany, France and the Low Countries.

I wish Conservation Agriculture Ireland good luck in its efforts. This committee will try to promote this as much as possible. Perhaps the Minister for Agriculture and Food, who comes from Cavan, would be very inclined to adopt this policy. However, there are natural problems with slurry and land reclamation. Vast tracts of every mountain from Slieve Bloom to Hungry Hill in the Beara peninsula have been reclaimed and are growing clover thanks to the plough and the deep ploughing of the mountain sides.

Will there be a massive reduction in growing corn crops? Will it leave a serious scarcity of feedstuff? At present, there is a glut in the world but not too long ago, there was a serious scarcity of feedstuffs. I would be concerned if a considerable number of people got out of growing corn, barley, wheat and so on.

Conservation Agriculture Ireland said it had difficulty getting anybody to listen to it in whatever Department it contacted. Will it elaborate on that? Who did it approach?

Mr. John Geraghty

I would not like what I said to be construed as saying people in those Departments would not listen. People listened but the issue is that there are different people working in different Departments and there is no link between them or it is very difficult to identify the key person. One could talk to three different officials. They give one a very sympathetic hearing and are very interested and supportive but in terms of getting momentum to move forward, there seems to be no link in Departments and between Departments in this regard.

There is a huge overlap, which Deputy Andrew Doyle mentioned, between Departments, primarily the Departments of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, and the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, but also the Departments of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, and Transport.

Mr. Gerry Bird

I thank the committee for the astute questioning and for complimenting our presentation. As it gathered, it is a voluntary group but it is enthusiastic. It was nice to hear young farmers mentioned. We are so lucky to have Ms Jane Smith and Mr. Julian Hughes on our side.

The question of education was to the fore in many Deputies' contributions. Mr. John Geraghty is involved with Waterford Institute of Technology and Mr. Julian Hughes is a product of it. He took the enthusiasm which Mr. Geraghty shared with him during lectures and went on to Harper Adams University to continue his studies. At this point, a module in Waterford Institute of Technology is probably the only recognised conservation agriculture course in the country.

Within CAIR, we have a facility to take in students. We have many student members who are recruited in Waterford or who come on board because their fathers or otherwise are involved. We have a disseminating process to a younger generation.

Education is vital. Ms Jane Smith is a young farmer who works in conjunction with her father. It is an interesting theme that we have had a continuation from the older stock to the younger stock. Ms Smith could be described as a very innovative, progressive farmer for the simple reason that she took it upon herself to do a Nuttfield scholarship and to study erosion and its effects on a worldwide scale to see how she might implement what she learned in County Laois.

Some of the Deputies mentioned Meath, Kildare, Kilkenny and Wexford. We operate with Ms Smith on other projects in County Laois with variable soils, including in Portarlington and Emo. Perhaps Ms Smith would like to tell the committee the process from a cost point of view and why her family became involved because the capital cost of the process was another issue.

Ms Jane Smith

One of the reasons we went into it was when I attended agricultural college in Kildalton, I went on to do the diploma in machinery and arable crops. As part of my work experience, I went to the United States of America where I spent eight months on an arable farm in Kansas. I come from a tillage farm in Ireland which had seen nothing but a plough. I went to an arable farm in Kansas where they farmed 11,000 acres and had not used a plough since World War II. I thought they were mad when they told me that. They had not used a plough since World War II and yet they produced crops.

While I was there I saw minimum and direct tillage. The direct tillage was done both on the irrigated land and on the dry land. Those of us from Ireland never had to irrigate land and this was new to me. All the circles of maize and wheat were direct-drilled. The only time they would possibly go out and till the circles was where, for example, the irrigation wheels were leaving big tracks, if it got stuck and the irrigation kept running for an extra day or so in the wrong spot. My father travelled out to visit me and he could not get over this.

I returned in 2002 and since then we have gone into minimum tillage. We have come through a labour shortage in agriculture, especially skilled labour, and only my father and I were left working on the farm. The two of us were covering 1,500 acres. We have now reduced down from three to two tractors and we have no plough. I do all the cultivation and he does all the sowing. We have everything covered and we can sow our winter crops within three weeks, which on ploughed base would not allow us get our winter crops sown within two months on that size acreage. Our diesel bill has not reduced but the quantity of diesel being used has reduced in recent years. With the rise in price we are probably paying now what we paid in 1999 when we were running two tractors ploughing and a tractor tilling and sowing afterwards and then another tractor rolling.

We have seen our yields move upwards. We have gone up half a tonne per hectare. We have seen great increases. We have not had any big problems with our weed control, apart from sterile broom, and with that we have encouraged our rotation while leaving a cover with the stubble. We kill them during the winter by using Roundup and sowing back in our spring crops. Our sterile broom problems are reducing. It is all in the head — it is a case of changing the way of thinking. It is also a case of my wanting to go to America just to be seen to be going to America as an agriculture student, to come back and decide it can be done and it has been done.

Do crops have to be sprayed for disease as often as on tilled ground?

Mr. Gerry Bird

No, for the simple reason that the whole emphasis is on stubble cultivation. What Ms Smith and the others do is let germinating weeds germinate. The previous crop that might carry disease is desiccated with something like Roundup pre-sowing. There is not the same pressure to the same extent at the early part of the season.

Given that Jane Smith and her father can drill crops a lot earlier because the ground is very fit to go on, they drill maybe two or three weeks earlier than conventional growers and this allows her get all her cropping in. It means they can reduce their sowing rate. With reduced sowing rates they save on seed and on fertiliser, but they also decrease the disease pressure from an open canopy very early on in the campaign.

Giving a better yield.

Mr. Gerry Bird

Yes, a better yield for the simple reason that given we have so many plants in the square yard, a conventional man might have 50% more on that yield with more pressure on him. It is interesting that Jane Smith and the others who practise can find that the stubble is broken down by the earthworms and the fungi so that organic nitrogen is being produced and put back into the crop instead of being buried ten or eleven inches down. That is the point on disease control. The inputs are somewhat decreased.

As we do not operate on a very loose seed bed, we do not have slug problems. Nor do we have aphid problems pre-Christmas for the simple reason that due to the type of ground cover they are not as attracted to the crop compared to the green-dark-green-dark situation. It must be remembered that the aphid or the greenfly is looking into what is nearly a stubble field. We can then cut down totally on slug pellets and on aphicides which a lot of people use pre-Christmas as a kind of preventative. This is the biodiversity side of it.

We are very conscious of practical operators. Tom Shortt is a contractor and farmer operating in County Wicklow. It is important to bear in mind that for this system to work, people like Tom Shortt have to be incentivised to buy machinery and make it available to smaller growers. I raised this issue when we met the Minister during the summer. The nitrates directive was in full swing at the time and grants were available for slurry control and all those elements associated with management. I would suggest that the committee take on board, with the soil directive mounting up, that people like Tom Shortt or the Smiths or whoever should be grant-aided to purchase the machines in order to allow a machine to be put into a district to effectively allow the system to be practised by farmers whose farms are not of the scale to enable them purchase the machine. I invite Mr. Shortt to comment on his situation in the Wicklow area.

Mr. Tom Shortt

It is as well to take a step back. In 2002, I got a telephone call from the local authority in Wicklow to say I would have to do something about the soil which was running out on to the road, as it could cause an accident. We were tired having to get the machine to clean it off. It was a large, sloping field running down with significant water coming. It was plough-based and the best of the soil was running out. What has changed since switching over is that the water is still flowing but there is no silt flowing.

I did not know how to solve the problem so I spoke to Mr. John Geraghty and he gave me a few ideas. I thought this would mean a big investment but we had to start small. I started off with a neighbour. We bought a three-metre cultivator. Relative to the cost of a new plough, the cost was quite small. Back in 2003 we started with 100 acres. It worked but it is a case of changing one's mind set.

Many neighbours thought I was losing it when they saw the state of the field. It is not a brown, tidy field with the crop coming up as there is a lot of stubble and trash left on it. As John Geraghty and Gerry Bird said, that is good for the ground. We had to change our mindset. While I kept changing my farming practice — I have it all now in minimum tillage — people I have been working for on contract are very slow to change. They are changing but they will not do so for all of the farm but for a proportion of it, perhaps a tenth or a fifth. They are seeing the benefits in soil structure and the speed at which we can do the work.

Everybody wants their spring crops sown by 20 March but I cannot cover the area of ground I am expected to go over by 20 March if I have to get somebody in with a plough. Up to now I could not get anybody to sit on a machine and plough whereas now we can cover for 1,500 or 1,600 acres with two people and two tractors. Weather permitting it can all be tidied up. One does not need a lot of time for the sowing window any more. The drill we use can still be used in a plough-based system. The cultivator can also be used on the ploughed ground to till it before we sow. There is no specific machinery needed; it is a dual-purpose machinery. Our diesel bill is down by 40% but our time is down by 60% for the total operation. This was a great advantage in recent years when we could not get skilled operators.

Mr. Gerry Bird

Another question raised was the flooding aspect. We see this as a part of the solution. I heard Deputy Sheehan's comments about Clonmel. We know those fields and we have been there. In answer to Deputy Aylward, the trouble is when one ploughs seven, eight or nine inches, it puts a shine on the sole of the ploughing. The water runs down through the loose ground, meets the hard layer and flows down on that. A channel is created about seven or eight inches down and that is how it ends up. As the slide presentation showed, over-tilling means it will come over the top so that the phosphorus fertiliser, the nitrogen fertiliser and the silt gets into the water system. The officials in the county council are trying to purify water by taking out silt and organic matter but now they might have to take out phosphorus or the herbicides that were used for the wheat.

The situation in Clonmel was alluded to. In England we witnessed a farmer putting a margin of grass at the bottom of the slope to catch the silt coming off the hill. He might till the opposite way and not with the slope. He might use different types of tramlines. He might use different tyres. In England we saw spade lugs on the tyres of the tractors to cut grooves on the tramline going up the field and slow the water coming down from the field.

There are many innovations for dealing with the issue effectively that we picked up through travel in Europe and Britain. I was very encouraged by Deputy Doyle's idea for a pilot scheme. All these farmers have pilot situations in their fields. I remember areas where the water used to flow down the headland or the headland was very hard to till. There are all these practical situations. One might have needed more diesel or another pass in an area. We see these systems happening in a microcosm. It would be lovely to get involved with two or three different Departments and have a pilot project where we could apply scientific information to it.

Deputy Ferris and some of the other members inquired about cover crops. The use of cover crops is a novel idea in Ireland. Essentially, cover crops to most Irish farmers would be, for example, forage rape for feeding lambs. I might ask Ms Avril Rothwell to outline some of the work we have done together on cover crops. Cover crops might serve a number of functions. They might open the ground, provide more nutrients and fix nitrogen.

Ms Avril Rothwell

Soil fertility management is another aspect. They also help with soil quality and weed management because there is a thick vegetative cover preventing the weeds from germinating. They are also important for pest management because they can provide an environment for predators. They can bring beneficial predators that prey, for example, on aphids, resulting in a decrease in pests. They are important all round. They also give increased biodiversity. Phacelia is a cover crop on which we have done some work. It is important as a pollination crop for bumblebees, which has been found to be very beneficial in pollinating agricultural crops such as oilseed rape. A recent Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government publication stated that the benefit of bumblebees in pollinating oilseed rape had been estimated at €1 million. All in all, cover crops along with minimum tillage are very important components.

Mr. Gerry Bird

They also take the blandness out of the countryside. At this point in time one will see rape fields around the place. Cover crops such as phacelia would be related to linseed and flax, meaning that one will see blue flowers around the place. We had sunflowers and buckwheat, which is not a type of wheat but a pansy-type flower. It stops phosphorous from leaching. We had yellow clovers which were 3 ft. tall. Mr. Geraghty had some slides showing farmers in Switzerland sowing crops through them. They have yellow flowers, look very nice in the countryside and do considerable good for the soil. All the material goes back in but it also fixes nitrogen.

In response to Deputy Sheehan, clover can fix 150 kg to 200 kg of nitrogen per hectare simply by taking it out of the air. We showed a slide at one of our meetings last March that showed a field of clover with farmers drilling wheat straight through it. We controlled the clover with herbicide. We kept it back — stung it a little bit. However, the wheat was feeding off the nitrogen that was fixed by the clover. That may seem absolutely absurd. I operate with many tillage farmers. We do approximately 6,000 ha to 7,000 ha worth of consultancy. I have people who are at the pin of their collar to pay for the stuff and keep within the requirements of the nitrates directive and of REPS. They have all those pressures with the price of grain decreasing.

The Chairman asked about the trend in the grain that is grown. I ask Mr. Shortt what the price of dried wheat is at the moment.

Mr. Tom Shortt

It is €120 per tonne.

Mr. Gerry Bird

That is incredible. It was €152 per tonne from the combine last August. Where has the price of fertiliser, diesel and other items gone? These people are hanging in more by tradition than anything else. The Chairman asked where it has all gone. In our own part of the world, not all the winter wheat was sown so it is all spring corn, much of which is motley spring corn. That is the problem. It is very important to put systems in place to give hope for people like Ms Jane Smith and Mr. Julian Hughes.

The Chairman picked up an interesting aspect from our newsletter. I believe Mr. Hughes might have been the purveyor of that information about the tractor actually putting back the cyclical——

Mr. Julian Hughes

I will try to explain it. It is a very simple system. A pipe is taken off the exhaust of the tractor and run back. There is a cooling rack on the side of a driller or cultivator. It is basically the exhaust piped directly back into the ground behind the cultivating legs. It is a very simple system which has many benefits. Some of the main benefits are as follows. From a nutrient point of view, it reintroduces nitrogen, sulphur, zinc and copper oxides into the soil. One of the main elements would be carbon. As one can imagine, it is good to get carbon monoxide emissions from exhausts back into the soil. That carbon stimulates bacteria, which is another effect of reintroducing the exhaust fumes. There have been a number of different benefits from it. It is on trial in the UK. It has been very successful in Canada and in the US. This is the first year of trials in the UK. So far it has shown promising results. We hope it will carry on a little further to here.

Mr. Gerry Bird

The role of root crops was mentioned. I believe Ms Smith may have been the first person in Ireland to have minimum tillage potatoes, or was that a joke?

Ms Jane Smith

No, it was not a joke.

Mr. Gerry Bird

When we had sugar beet, some farmers in Kilkenny and Kildare used minimum tillage with sugar beet.

Ms Jane Smith

We would have tried some sugar beet on minimum tillage. I believe it was the last year of sugar beet. We got a yield that was every bit as good as if we had it tilled. I have also sown potatoes on minimum tillage with no plough. I do not sow them myself — I contract in somebody to sow my potatoes.

Ms Smith mentioned sowing potatoes. At what depth?

Ms Jane Smith

Is the Deputy asking about when I am tilling or sowing?

When sowing, how deep under the surface does she sow them?

Ms Jane Smith

I sow them down about five or six inches.

Is Ms Smith saying that she sows the potato directly without ploughing?

Ms Jane Smith

I am not ploughing. I am using minimum tillage. I mix up and incorporate the stubble — wheat would have been in the field last year. I incorporate that with the soil.

Is Ms Smith saying that she does not drill?

Ms Jane Smith

The contractor comes in and he drills and plants the potato then.

Mr. Gerry Bird

The concept is that the potato has the power to pull its roots down through what one perceives to be a hard layer. It must be remembered that with minimum tillage we do not disturb the root system from last year or any of the previous years. This gives us a honeycomb effect that allows water to percolate slowly through the land so that it does not end up at the gate in one shot. In the normal way following an inch of rain it all ends up at the gate. In the slides that Mr. Geraghty showed — like Deputy Sheehan's analogy of the lands around Clonmel — it percolates slowly.

The important thing about the organic matter is that it is cleaning it as well. Organic matter is an incredible agent to absorb much of the stuff that comes with water and is carried through the soil. It has a powerful ability to literally clean water. It is like filter beds. Those who produce gas or whatever else filter it by putting it through bark mulch or through compost to remove the smell. There is a lot happening with organic matter that people do not realise.

In recent days I was completing some single farm payment forms. Farmers have noticed the Department's 3.4% organic matter target. This is the start of where we should be going on soil management. It is probably the first official recognition that we need to set a target for soil organic matter because it has such an impact — outside the fertility point of view or the workability — on the soil environment.

Did Teagasc respond to that?

Mr. Gerry Bird

We talked to Michael Hamill approximately three or four years ago. They were quite alarmed because he had some early initial work from Wexford. It was 1.5% to 1.7% in some of the sandy loamy soils in Wexford. That got them thinking. Effectively that is one of the planks of the soil directive that organic matter in Ireland needs to be increased. In any of the fields that Ms Jane Smith operates, one might find 15% in one corner and a gravel hill in the other corner with variations in soil etc. Teagasc is right in so far as we get very good crops and there is variable soil matter. However, we need to think forward and not just in the here and now. I cannot estimate how much per tonne it is costing Mr. Tom Shortt to produce corn. He should be able to reduce that and organic matter plays a role. The percentage might vary by county. However, it has a big impact on fertility and water, particularly in places like County Wicklow with slopey sharp ground. Its ability to hold water will definitely be impaired in the next ten or 15 years.

We need to start now to introduce inventive ways to manufacture and build up the organic matter. Effectively, a living soil is soil that is naturally recycling. A forest floor is the ultimate natural recycler. We need to get farmers into that practice. In a period of six, seven, eight or nine years we will enhance the soil.

I am very interested in what was said about potatoes. Ms Smith does not plough the land prior to planting the potatoes.

Ms Jane Smith


As Mr. Bird knows, many potatoes are planted in County Meath.

Mr. Gerry Bird

They quarry for potatoes. They do not plough.

What is the yield? Is there a difference in yield?

Ms Jane Smith

There is no difference. I would say I produce a more constant, nice-sized eating potato, rather than a seed potato. I am talking about the nice round potato one might have with a steak for one's dinner.

Yes. It is hard to find that kind of potato anymore.

Ms Jane Smith

I would have a more constant quantity of potatoes of that size, as opposed to really small or really big potatoes.

I was saying to the clerk to the committee that this was very interesting.

I am confused about the potato. Ms Smith has said she does not plough or cultivate the soil before she sows potatoes. It is obvious that she gets them under the ground some way. When she digs the potatoes, is she not cultivating the soil?

Does she make a drill?

Ms Jane Smith

Yes, they go in a drill.

Only in the drill.

The plough is decommissioned.

The soil is simply turned over.

It is a new type of plough.

Ms Jane Smith

It is a normal potato planting machine. It rises its own drills in the tilled ground which is not ploughed.

Mr. Gerry Bird

Perhaps I can——

I was about to make a suggestion. Members of the committee would be very interested, at the proper time of the year, in going to see this process for themselves.

Mr. Gerry Bird

When volunteer potatoes growing in a crop of wheat are left alone, they grow to the exact same size as they would if they were in a drill. I refer to the small spuds left behind after harvesting. If they are allowed to grow, they will grow to the exact same size as their comrades in a drill.

Mr. Gerry Bird

We need to move away from a certain mindset. We are engaged in potato trials. I was told that a bed of 72 inches, 30 inches deep, would have to be destoned and that I would have to leave lines of stones on each side. However, that would change utterly the drainage pattern of a field that took up to 10,000 years to get into that position. Then one wonders why most of the field ends up on the road.

I know all about it.

Mr. Gerry Bird

If it is not on the tractor, it comes away with the rain. That is the mindset of those who try to make money by achieving 35 tonnes per hectare. I am on a rant. If farmers received enough money for their potatoes, they would not need to achieve 35 tonnes per hectare. They might be happy with 20 tonnes per hectare. These guys have been forced to use tonnes of nitrogen and spray, etc., to try to keep pace with what is expected of them. The figure mentioned by Mr. Shortt was probably the figure he got in 1980.

Mr. Tom Shortt

It was.

I agree that destoning has the ground destroyed.

Mr. Gerry Bird

It physically moves everything.

I would not let a destoner into a field.

I would like to ask two quick supplementary questions. I should mention, in case we are accused of being hypocrites, that last week the committee received a presentation about calendar farming and slurry spreading. There was a discussion on winter ploughing as a means of reducing cultivation. I accept that Mr. Shortt is a member of the IFA which made some of the presentation in question. There is a contradiction in what we are hearing. Winter ploughing is part of the old conventional ploughing practice. We are now hearing about a system that rules out winter ploughing. I ask the delegation to be aware of this. When Ms Smith was asked about the control of weeds and diseases, she made the point that stubble could be burned off with something. Does she do this after the closed period of the nitrates directive to allow the volunteer material to stay as a cover crop in its own right? I understand a date such as 16 January is specified in the nitrates directive. Will Ms Smith clarify this?

I will take another couple of supplementary questions before I call Ms Smith.

Ms Smith said she got this idea when she visited the United States. What part did she visit?

Ms Jane Smith

I went to Kansas on my first visit.

Yes. It is in the mid-west.

Ms Jane Smith


With the Chairman of this committee and a few other members of a previous committee, some years ago I visited Wisconsin which is also in the mid-west. We saw for ourselves the vast tracts of land, stretching for 200 miles, that is as flat as a table. When I went to Iowa, another of the breadbasket states of America, if not the world, it took four hours of constant driving to get from the airport to Emmetsburg. We did not see a stone or a mountain in that time. The land was pure and level. One of the farms we visited was owned by two old brothers. I think their surname was O'Brien.

Were they west Corkmen?

The Chairman was with me that day. When I asked one of the brothers how deep the soil on his farm was, he told me there was at least ten feet of pure earth in all parts of the mid-west. He said the land was never flooded because the water was absorbed as soon as it fell from the sky. Unfortunately, one might not have two inches of soil in some parts of the place from where I come. I note Ms Smith comes from Portarlington, County Laois, one of the counties with deep soil. Parts of it are nearly as good as County Meath which has the best soil in the country.

We have the poorest farmers in the country.

What about the Golden Vale?

The Golden Vale is in County Limerick.

Everywhere is doing fine, except for poor west Cork. They have nothing down there.

When the Chairman walks his fields in the evening, perhaps he sometimes goes ag scóraíocht into his next-door neighbour. That day is almost gone. There has been no scóraíocht since television took over. If he lost his walking stick when crossing the field, he would not find it the next morning because so much grass would have grown.

What is Conservation Agriculture Ireland's relationship with the farming organisations? Does it receive support from the IFA and the Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmers Association?

Mr. Gerry Bird

I am a member of the IFA. We are just normal members. As Mr. Shortt is part of the IFA grain committee in County Wicklow, the IFA obviously knows how he operates. When day-to-day conversations take place, people ask him how he is getting on and tell him that his crops are looking well. That is as far as it goes. I have worked closely with the IFA grain chairman, Mr. Colum McDonnell, who practices minimum tillage methods on his own farm. That is the relationship we have with the IFA.

We have a healthy relationship with Teagasc. Professor Jimmy Burke sits in on our meetings. We are very encouraged by the work Teagasc has done in the last eight or nine years. I was interested to hear Deputy Doyle say the director of Teagasc was due to attend tomorrow's meeting of the joint committee. In recent years they have had enough information to transmit the message. It is a question of filtering it in a more balanced manner. People need to be told that the option is available. However, it is hard to get the message across to the older guys, as it is in many cases. It is mainly aimed at the younger generation. They have been getting very good data for the last ten years from an environmental and a production point of view. It has an exceptionally good profile from a cost point of view.

Is it compatible with traditional methods?

Mr. Gerry Bird

Yes, particularly in the case of winter wheat and winter barley.

Does it produce the same yield?

Mr. John Geraghty

There can be slight fluctuations.

Mr. Gerry Bird

It has recently started to be applied to spring barley.

Are we talking about two and a half tonnes?

Mr. Gerry Bird

We are talking about between four and four and a half tonnes in the case of wheat. People like Ms Smith and Mr. Tom Shortt would not have been in it for the last five years if they had not been maintaining the same levels. Those involved in the production of spring barley which is grown in a high percentage of the country have been slower to adopt this method, for two reasons. They probably have a better or wider window to get the corn in. One can start sowing corn in Enniscorthy or Bunclody in February. As the Chairman is aware, farmers in Moynalty, County Meath, might still be struggling to do so at the end of April. There is a huge window of operation in that case. It is much more succinct in the case of winter corn. They have to get it in within two or three weeks, between September and mid-October.

Perhaps Mr. Geraghty can answer my final question. I come from a more disadvantaged area of County Wicklow than Mr. Shortt. Tillage is not as widespread in my local area. Can the conservation farming method be transferred to grassland-based livestock farming? I would be happy with a "Yes" or "No" answer, if that helps to nail it.

I did not mention my experience of grassland farming. How long ago was Conservation Agriculture Ireland established and for how long does it expect to continue operations with a budget of just €3,000? The Minister for Finance may be interested in the reply.

It operates on a voluntary basis.

How is lay ground managed? If one wants to sow corn on a new greenfield site, it must first be ploughed.

Ms Jane Smith

No, that is not correct.

What does one do with the ground?

Ms Jane Smith

One applies glyphosate about 14 days before one tills and, depending on whether one is using direct drill or minimum till, one then tills or direct drills.

One would need a powerful machine to sow directly in lay ground.

Ms Jane Smith

That is not the case.

Mr. Tom Shortt

Part of the problem is that the Deputy is visualising an awful mess.

I am a traditionalist.

Mr. Tom Shortt

This approach does not create a mess, although the ground will not look neat and tidy. As Ms Smith stated, one needs to disk up the ground, cultivate it, break up the sod and drill into it. It will not look pretty for one month or six weeks but after that the crop will emerge. There is no need to plough the land.

We should visit a site to have a look at this approach.

Ms Jane Smith

Deputies Doyle and Sheehan asked a number of questions. We spray for spring crops about ten days before we sow and it is done on green cover.

On a trip to the United States in July 2006 I visited the Palouse region of Washington state where some farmers work 40 degree slope hills. One farmer told me that before making the change from conventional plough tilling the clay would move down the field in front of him. He eventually started to work with an organisation, STEEP, which deals with social, environmental and economic problems and solutions in Washington state. As with CAIR, it is a farmer to farmer organisation. The farmer in question was educated to work his slopes again and now direct drills them and uses buffer strips, which Mr. Bird discussed. He will drill down the slope for a certain distance at which point he has a buffer strip. Some of the farms were using grass as buffer strips, while others used trees. Just north of Durban in South Africa, fruit trees are used as buffer strips to collect the soil which may run off hills. The farmers in the area are therefore producing two crops, the fruit from the trees and the sugar cane, wheat, etc., they have sown.

Mr. John Geraghty

Having listened to the discussion, it is clear members have found it interesting. They would be fascinated if they were to spend time with us in the field. Our work, the study of science from a physical, biological and chemical point of view, offers major benefits.

Deputy Sheehan argues that old farmers will not change. That is not true because people will change if one can hook them and get them interested. Some of our active members are more than 70 years of age and point out that the type of agriculture we are discussing is similar to what they used to practise aged in their 20s. We have come complete circle. The major issue is one of providing education and training in a user friendly manner. The other issue is to link up along the chain to policymakers and legislators in a scientific format. On the farmer side, which Deputies Creed and Doyle discussed, the issue is one of profit and the cost reductions this approach can achieve. With certain people we mainly discuss scientific and environmental issues, whereas with farmers the main issue is one of profitability and cost reductions.

One also needs specific people to be able to deliver across the various areas because not everyone is able to do this. One needs people who will earn the respect of farmers and are trustworthy. The people selected to roll out legislation and policy development and explain this process through education initiatives are vital.

To respond to Deputy Doyle's question about cropping and livestock in a word, the answer is "Yes".

On behalf of CAIR, I thank Ms Briody and the team in this committee who have done much work on our behalf. They have been extremely helpful and generous with their time in facilitating us.

This has been a very informative meeting and it would be a shame not to pursue the matter. Has Conservation Agriculture Ireland submitted a specific proposal to the Department in respect of how this approach to farming could be incentivised? Could the joint committee hitch its wagon to a specific submission and express our support for it to the Department? What is the next step forward for the joint committee? It would be a shame to drop this issue.

Mr. John Geraghty

We made a submission to the joint committee in 2005. Members of Conservation Agriculture Ireland also have to work and earn money as we are operating on a budget of €3,000. The sky is the limit to what we could do if we had resources, finances and time but we will leave this meeting and return to work in our fields this evening. While we would like to devote time to making submissions, time and resources are major issues. It is not a case of objecting to working on a voluntary basis. We do this work because we are interested in it. The organisation does not have a hierarchy.

Is it as simple as the joint committee indicating to the Department that we would like a payment per hectare to be made to farmers who switch from conventional to conservation tillage, provided the switch is approved by a body such as CAIR or Teagasc? Is it as simple as offering an additional incentive to switch to this form of farming?

Mr. John Geraghty

Education and incentives must be provided concurrently. I agree with the Deputy that a one or two-year initiative is not sufficient — it must be for five years. My colleagues learned a great deal in the first two or three years subsequent to adopting this system. We have been building information on the ground with farmers for the past eight or nine years. We now know that certain practices we used in 2001 and 2002 are not necessary. We are now in a stronger position to deliver a more appropriate package to farmers in terms of education and training.

Do the unspent CAP funds provide a window? Is that where the opportunity for funding lies?

Mr. John Geraghty

On the basis of our discussions with European Commission officials, we understand that the target for modulated funds was to redistribute them for agri, environmental and rural development measures. This offers an opportunity to the extent that if one ringfences a fund from the tillage sector, one uses money available for the sector to support the uptake of conservation practices. I have provided a series of examples from other European countries. It is not the case that they have different climates or soil types. The issue is one of official government support for farming in a particular way and backing this up with education and training initiatives at farm level. We need to use farmer initiative and educate other farmers through the pioneering farmers such as Tom Shortt and Jane Smith if we are to facilitate the adoption process.

While we need support measures, the issue does not hinge on them because there is a huge knowledge deficit, and not only at farmer level. I find it easier to deal with farmers than with the scientific and research community and extension services.

Is Teagasc behind the curve on this issue?

Mr. John Geraghty

If we consider the uptake here relative to other countries, the United Kingdom is 50% non-plough based and there is 4% non-tillage.

Are Teagasc advisers au fait with CAIR?

Mr. John Geraghty


There are several other Oireachtas committees that CAIR should attend so the presentation can have a kind of cumulative effect. The farming organisations must be convinced about the merits of this system so as to give it support among their members. Pilot schemes would also be of benefit to CAIR so that farmers could see the benefits of the system on the ground. I was very impressed with Mr. Geraghty's presentation. While he pointed out how far behind Ireland is in this field, he outlined the benefits to the farmer and the environment of the non-ploughing and non-tillage systems. It is commendable and can easily be sold if done properly.

The Joint Committee on Climate Change and Energy Security was aware of this meeting and two of its members attended.

Are Teagasc and the farming groups, such as the IFA and ICMSA, supportive of this system? Have they adopted this system as a recommended farming method? Would a Teagasc adviser recommend this as an alternative farming method?

I am amazed at the amount of scientific evidence made available by the delegation, particularly as it is a voluntary body. The other major plus is that CAIR is about direct farmer involvement. Far too many bodies coming out with scientific studies and recommendations for the agricultural sector have no direct involvement in farming. All sides of the House will have to join up in bringing this system more to the fore. I look forward to being involved in this.

As a Deputy from the north west where there is not much tillage farming, I must admit I know little about it. However, I found this presentation very interesting. If CAIR wishes to advance its proposals, it must ensure it gets it across that there will be a financial benefit to the farmer. REPS might be the best way to introduce this system. CAIR will need the support of Teagasc and the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.

Mr. John Geraghty

Teagasc has been great with the research it has done on this topic. Tony Fortune, who has just retired, was with us when we made a submission to the committee in May 2005. Dermot Forestal, Tom Kennedy and John Hogan are also doing wonderful research in this area. Their results have been positive and presented at the national tillage conference every January.

The issue is the roll-out of the method. It very much depends on the Teagasc adviser's or private consultant's knowledge of the method. The ability of someone to transfer their knowledge of soil science, no matter how small, into a practical method is the key. It is like any profession. There are some who are very good and those are the people who could relate to the farmer which would lead to greater uptake.

Mr. Gerry Bird

I thank the committee for a very on-the-ball discussion. It is refreshing that our voluntary organisation is taken seriously by the committee. I thank the Chairman for the opportunity to present to the committee. If members need any more information or even visits to their constituencies, we would be more than happy to facilitate them.

Is it agreed that the clerk to the committee shall draw up proposals, along the lines laid out by Deputy Creed, for the next meeting? Agreed.

I thank CAIR for a comprehensive presentation and answering questions raised. This was one of the best meetings the committee has had in a long time.

The joint committee went into private session at 1.35 p.m. and adjourned at 1.55 p.m. until 9.30 a.m. on Thursday, 30 April 2009.