That Seanad Éireann:
- the major role agriculture plays in creating employment, generating economic activity and acting as a custodian of the countryside in Ireland;
- the unique vulnerability and exposure of agriculture to fluctuations in the weather;
- the on-going hardship inflicted upon farming communities across Ireland due to the fodder crisis that has been evident in the country since last Autumn and the sacrifices farming families have made to protect their livestock;
- the failure of the Government to address the fodder shortages meant there were no contingency plans in place despite Teagasc advising of the need to prioritise the feeding of meal/cereal based concentrates to plug the fodder gap;
- the contradictory situation with the Government reaffirming on 4th April, 2018, that there was an availability of fodder in the country while Co-operatives were ordering fodder imports from the UK on the very same day;
- that due to inaction, the fodder crisis has become a national emergency putting a huge strain on farmers' mental health and creating animal welfare issues;
- that some farmers are spending €2,500 weekly due to the fodder crisis according to IFAC, while Teagasc estimates reduced profitability for every day that cows are not grazing at between €2.20 and €3 per cow;
- that the fodder transport scheme has failed to address the crisis as signified by the low uptake and excessive regulatory criteria put on farmers to access the scheme, which had the impact of driving up the demand and price for already scarce domestically sourced fodder;
- the belated move by the Government to open the Fodder Import Support Scheme to all Co-operatives and private feed merchants; and
- that the Government chose not to include a measure in Ireland's Rural Development Programme (RDP), 2014-2020, which would compensate farmers for losses caused by adverse weather as is currently permitted;
and calls on the Government to:
- immediately bring forward a hardship fund to help small and medium size farmers who have been severely impacted by the fodder crisis;
- introduce a meal voucher scheme for farmers affected;
- swiftly make available low cost credit for farmers to help pay for the costs of sourcing fodder and concentrates, while immediately finalising and opening the low cost loan scheme announced over seven months ago in Budget 2018;
- ensure all balancing payments for outstanding 2017 RDP scheme payments such as the Green, Low-Carbon, Agri-Environment Scheme (GLAS) and the Sheep Welfare Scheme are paid immediately as farmers' cash flow problems mount;
- dedicate a budget to the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine Early Warning System (EWS), which supports farmers at local level before any welfare problems occur;
- establish a special standing committee comprised of relevant stakeholders to monitor and report quarterly to the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, to keep fodder supplies under review with fail safe measures to ensure that such a crisis does not emerge again;
- temporarily halt all cross compliance inspections on farms as well as Bord Bia farm audits;
- include a permanent scheme in the RDP to compensate farmers for losses caused by adverse weather; and
- ensure that flexibility is shown regarding the upcoming 2018 Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) deadline.
Since last September, Fianna Fáil has called for action to tackle the issue of fodder shortages. In the end, what began as a fodder shortage has become a fodder crisis because of the Government's failure to act. This has caused huge stress to farmers and created animal welfare issues.
In December 2017, I raised this matter in the Seanad and said that taking a wait-and-see approach simply would not work. However, that is exactly what the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Creed, did. Now we see the consequences. Last week at the Oireachtas agriculture committee, the Minister said that even if the Department had sanctioned fodder importation at an earlier date, it would not have happened. He said everyone had expected the weather to improve which would have resolved the issue. While we all hoped for better weather, we know from experience that one needs to prepare for the worst, even while hoping for the best. Instead, the Minister put his faith in blind optimism and was left scrambling around at the last minute for a solution to the crisis. Assumption is no foundation for policy.
In January in the House, the Minister referred to the introduction of the transport subsidy which has since proved to be a total failure. The fact that there were only 16 applicants says it all. The Minister also said there was enough fodder on the island but that it was just in the wrong places. By encouraging movement from one area to another and not acknowledging the need for fodder importation at that stage, the problem was compounded in areas where fodder was moved from and which are now in crisis. On that occasion, I emphasised the severity of the crisis and called for urgent action. The Minister's response was that I was only looking for a headline. That could not be further from the truth. I was outlining my genuine concerns which, unfortunately, have now been shown to be well-founded. In the end, it is the Minister who has received the headlines on this issue, headlines, no doubt, he would have preferred to avoid.
This crisis has shown just how out of touch Fine Gael is with rural areas. Its amendment to this motion shows it is still a party in denial and unable to understand the reality for farmers as this crisis has spiralled and spread. The Minister has belatedly introduced an import scheme. This is insufficient, however, on its own and Fianna Fáil is calling for additional urgent measures to be put in place.
In particular, the Government needs to introduce, with immediate effect, a meal voucher scheme for affected farmers. This should have been introduced some time ago. People are now of the opinion that, because the weather has taken a slight turn for the better, this is not a necessity. The Minister of State and I know that the stock turned out onto grass, whenever that option becomes available in particular areas, will be in a very poor state, with many animals suffering from malnutrition. The cows in the suckler herd will have serious fertility problems. We have factual evidence, depending on which of the co-ops is providing the figures, that dairy milk production is down by up to 10%. Without any research or similar figures, we can take it that the milk production rate relating to suckler cows has decreased in the same way and that calves are suffering in that instance. Meal vouchers will be needed, with grass, to supplement the animals coming out in poor condition to try to get them back to the respectable condition in which the farmers of this country strive to have them. Grass alone will not do this.
Despite what some people might say as a result of the sun shining today, it is not too late to introduce these much-needed meal vouchers. They will also be needed to supplement grass because farmers have had to put cattle out early due to a lack of feed. They are grazing them on what would normally be silage ground. Silage cutting and production is now way behind. In a year in which we will need extra silage to replace the vast silage stores and back-ups that people had in reserve and which they have been using, we need to be able to preserve this silage ground and feed cattle on fewer acres. A supplement will be needed to accommodate this. It is not too late and it is vital that a meal voucher system be introduced forthwith.
Low-cost credit must be made available to farmers. A low-cost credit loan scheme was announced in the budget. This scheme should be finalised as a priority and made available to farmers in need. Practically all farmers who have stock have a serious cashflow deficiency because they had to buy feed for which they did not plan or budget. They are faced with a situation whereby they will need extra fertiliser to catch up on growth in circumstances where land has taken a hammering from the bad weather we have experienced during the past seven months. If they can manage it, they will also have to set aside extra ground for silage. If we get a bad harvest or autumn, there may not be an opportunity to have the second or third cut required to build up these reserves. In order to maximise output, there needs to be, more than in any previous year, a correctly managed application of fertiliser. Unfortunately, in many instances the merchants from whom the farmers buy their fertiliser are at their limit in the context of extending credit as a result of the fact that they had to provide additional meal and food during the winter months. I know of smaller merchants who have said openly that they will not stock or sell fertiliser this year for fear that they will not be paid for it. Low-cost credit is one solution to this problem. It will help farmers invest, get themselves back on their feet and get their land and animals back into the condition they would have been in had this crisis not arisen.
The Minister should immediately bring forward a hardship fund to help the small and medium-sized farmers who have suffered most. While low-cost loans and cheap credit are advantageous and helpful, loans have one major problem in that they must be paid back. Every sector in agriculture is struggling. However, the suckler sector in particular is struggling as a result of what happened in the past seven months. It is difficult to see how people will be able to pay back loans for fodder that has now been eaten. While fertiliser assists the growth of grass, some farmers will hope for the best. They will be of the view that we will, perhaps, have a good year and that they will get grass without using fertiliser. This is because they cannot afford to buy it. A hardship fund is also a necessity in such circumstances.
It goes without saying that outstanding GLAS and sheep welfare scheme payments should be paid immediately. Farmers are in dire straits regarding credit from their merchants and suppliers. To be owed money by the Department that should be overseeing this crisis is farcical. Every move should be made in order that this money can be paid immediately. It is the farmers' money and for it to be sitting in the Department's bank account when they are in such dire straits is inexcusable.
Flexibility must be shown in respect of the upcoming 2018 basic payment scheme and beef data and genomics programme deadlines. A major issue I see coming down the line, which has been highlighted to me in the context of the beef data and genomics programme, is the four-star and five-star 20% target for October 2018. In October, consideration must be given to farmers who cannot meet this deadline where it can be proven this is due to actions they have taken in recent months to try to get through the crisis, such as selling heifers to bring in money to buy feed or because they did not have feed for those animals. There has to be some relief from the penalties in these situations.
Fianna Fáil is calling for a temporary halt to all cross-compliance inspections, as well as to Bord Bia farm audits, until the immediate problems are solved. This is common sense. We all know the major stress that farmers are under. They are trying their damnedest to get things back in order. They are working on a 24-7 basis in many cases. The last thing they need is the possibility of inspection. In solidarity with their plight, it would be advisable that inspections be suspended.
The Minister should also establish a standing committee to keep fodder supplies under review. If this matter is not managed properly from now on, seeing as it has not been to date, it is a fact there will be another fodder crisis in 2019. I do not like stating this because I do not want to come across as an eternal pessimist adding more bad news to a bad news story. While it is being called a fodder crisis, it is an agricultural crisis. No spring crops have been sown and practically no ploughing has been done. This means that farmers are a month to six weeks behind. Anyone who knows anything about tillage will say that if barley is not sown until the next three weeks, the best case will be stunted straw growth, although the grain might come out okay. By its nature, barley will still ripen in August when it normally does but there will not be an extra month's growth at the end of the season. This indicates to me that next winter will commence with a shortage of straw.
As already stated, if there is not correct management of pasture rotation and fertiliser spreading, we will not build up the reserves of silage we need. All of this depends on the imponderable that got us to where we are, namely, that we get a summer during which we can make silage and that we get a normal autumn. There needs to be a standing committee to keep fodder supplies under review and to advise and help farmers to get the maximum from their financial and land resources, mineral additives and anything that can help to get them over this hump and out the far side with enough reserves for, potentially, an equally long winter next year.
The Government should include a permanent scheme in the rural development programme to compensate farmers for losses caused by severe weather. The Government could have included this in the rural development plan for the period 2014 to 2020 but it refused to do so. There is no EU regulation or directive and no diktat from Brussels to state that we could not have done this. We could have done so and the Government ignored it. If that were in situ, we would not be here today raising many of these issues. The time has come to put in place the necessary structures to resolve this crisis and prevent similar problems from arising in future. Any further inaction on the part of the Minister will only damage Irish agriculture further.
As I said at the outset, I along with others have been raising this issue here since autumn and early winter last year. It is time now for action. For many people and many animals, it is too late. We learned nothing in 2013. Any time we raised it, we were told there was a fodder action group being headed by Teagasc. Perhaps the time has come to have a review of the role of that group and of Teagasc, if the solutions and the proposals they came up with are what got us here. If we are to believe the Minister, he acted on their advice and guidance and as his action was limited, they must be questioned.