Thursday, May 30, 2024

Laois tillage farmers gambling on the summer just to break even

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As March came to an end Stradbally man Bobby Miller spoke to the Leinster Express / Laois Live the dire straits tillage farmers faced in Laois and other counties due to months of rain.

Mr Miller, who is also Chairperson of the Irish Grain Growers, said virtually no sowing had taken place locally or nationally placing the entire season under threat.

More rain has fallen since and while calmer conditions appear to be settling in, Mr Miller says he and others have had to move into a gambling mode this year.

“Conditions improved slightly to look after winter crops but next to nothing has been done as regards the spring crops,” he told the Leinster Express / Laois Live.

He said farmers are hopeful the the high pressure promised by Met Éireann will eventually materialise. If so he he hopes to be on the land this week but he also realises he has to accept the reality.

“It’s gone beyond the point of being positive for the year,” he said.

Mr Miller said that everything is now hinging on the short-term weather prospects to the end of April.  

“If we can get crops into the ground in the next week very few farmers will change their sowing plans. Spring barley will be the predominant crop,” he said.

He hopes that seed availability does not become an issue with farmers forced to sow late and all around the same time. However, he believes that the vast majority have a secure supply at this point.

He said that farmers are effectively sticking with the plan a of sowing spring crops in the hope of positive weather after sowing eventually happens but this will depend on conditions.

If the weather does not pick up this month, Mr Miller said the plan has to be revised.

“If it goes into May we are looking at a completely different scenario,” he said.

Another risk that he and others have to contend with is the summer weather. This caused him to recall the Beast from the East and weather that followed.

“We are hoping for positive weather after we sow during the growing season. If we don’t get that we are looking at a 2018 scenario. That was the Beast from the East which was followed by a drought.

“What we need,  if and when we so crops, is a very favourable weather growing season, especially in May,” he said.

This short sowing window and hope for good growing weather has left Mr Miller and others like gamblers. Like a poker players with a bad hand of cards, he is just openg to cover his stake.

“In gambling terms, the odds are after going against us now. We are gambling to break even,” he said.

Even if this happens, Mr Miller says the weather means that the weather that has already hit will have an impact. He says the yield will drop due to the shorter growing season. 

While he says farmers could get lucky, he says the historic precedent for current weather conditions is that the quality will drop.

As for harvest time, Mr Miller says the weather could play its part once again. He believes it will not now be possible to take crops in until September when weather conditions will be changeable.

He does not dismiss the potential of a good harvest and high prices as happened unexpectedly in 2022 though the difference then was that seeds had been sowed on time. He said another variable is future grain prices.

Mr Miller said the €100 h/a per acre response promised by Government to support farmers does not cushion the likely blow this year.

“It’s a recognition that there is a problem this year. Is it a cushion? No,” he said.

He said that a payment of roughly €40 per acre would fall well short of the €500 cost per acre of sowing spring barely normally.

“We as farmers do not want to depend on handouts going forward – it is not in our nature and it’s not a good foundation. When we do put out the call we are genuine,” he said.

An avenue for short, medium and long term support has just opened for the Government to help tillage farmers in the shape of a vision document presented to the Minister for Agriculture Charlie McConalougue.

The Food Vision Tillage Group Report contains short, medium and long term proposals for the sector. The remit of the group was to produce a detailed plan and recommendations to sustainably grow the sector to 400,000ha by 2030. Mr Miller called on industry and Government to respond positively to its recommendations.

He urged the Minister to act quickly on some aspects of the report that would influence the direction of tillage. He highlighted the implementation of a new environmental / carbon recognition measure as the first step to take.

“As tillage farmers we can completely justify why that needs to happen,” he said.

Implementation of the report will not be cheap as is demonstrated by the year-one cost put on what’s needed by the Irish Grain Growers.

“We had an ask for €80 million,” he said.

Mr Miller accepts that this is a lot of money but said the Government has laid down for areas of land use in its Climate Action Plan that need investment. Apart from tillage these are anaerobic digestion, organics and forestry.

Mr Miller said finances have already been invested in the organic sector and forestry. For instance, he said €250 million has already been allocated to organic farming over five years. 

He said the Government wants 4% of land to be used for organic while tillage area is more than double that. 

The tillage farmer says the €80 million proposal is also justified because tillage farming is carbon neutral and will not be the sector of agriculture responsible if fines for missing carbon reduction targets are levied on Ireland. 

He claims that feed is imported from other countries but what is grown in Ireland leaves a carbon footprint of up to 20 times less than what comes to Ireland from Asia and the Mercosur region.

He adds that the €80 million will attract more farmers to opt for tillage farming.  

Apart from supporting farmers, Mr Miller believes that such investment will benefit shoppers.

“It is a way of keeping food cheaper for the consumer…to the ordinary person supporting farmers can be well justified in the supermarkets,” he said.

Ultimately, he said farmers are not looking for a payout every year. Instead he insists that investing in growers in Laois and other counties will put the sector on very firm foundations which is in line with Government vision for the country.

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