Dail debates the future of the Irish tillage sector

The future of the tillage industry in Ireland was discussed in the Dail earlier this evening, where the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine put forward the issues and potential remedies for improving the tillage sector in the country.

These were based on a report published by the committee in November, taking recent activity and events such as weather into account.

A motion calling for the implementation of recommended actions received unanimous backing from the Dail, following the discussion of a number of proposals.

Various potential measures were put forward for boosting the lot of tillage farmers, with the issue of income a key topic for many sides in the debate. It was highlighted that 85% of tillage farmers’ incomes are made up of Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) payments, leaving the sector particularly vulnerable to any effects on payments from CAP reform.

It was also noted with concern that the grain industry is under tremendous pressure, with 2-3% of land being taken out of tillage each year.

Remedies

In terms of what can be done to boost the sector, a number of options were mooted in the Dail. The potential of energy crops was noted by committee chair Pat Deering and Minister for State Andrew Doyle mentioning possible benefits.

Fianna Fail spokesperson for agriculture Charlie McConalogue also referenced the potential, while Labour’s Willie Penrose noted that the potential for biofuels is not being realised – though he added that people have not forgotten the last attempt at renewables, where many farmers got burnt with investment.

Other potential remedies outlined included crop insurance, reducing fertiliser taxation, protein crops and the the reintroduction of the sugar beet industry – which Minister Creed said the Government would be open to, while also acknowledging its role as a feed crop.

The adoption of a ‘Fair Trade‘ system was also highlighted. This would involve businesses paying a slightly higher price for grain to use a ‘Fair Trade’ logo in recognition of better pay for tillage farmers.

Deputy McConalogue commented on this, noting that from a brewing perspective, a 1c increase in the price of a pint of beer would lead to a substantial price increase of 20% for farmers’ grain.

The growing distillery and brewery industries in particular were viewed as a real path of opportunity for Irish tillage, with deputy Penrose noting the expansion of distilleries in his constituency of Longford-Westmeath.

Deputy Martin Kenny of Sinn Fein also referenced the distillery in his own constituency of Sligo-Leitrim, adding that the farmer gets 1% share of the price of a pint, a very small percentage compared to every other part of the supply chain getting a proper share of the price.

Kenny added that the Irish whiskey sector across the world has a huge opportunity to expand in countries such as Mexico – where huge advances have been made – and France – which happens to be the biggest consumer of whiskey in Europe.

If Irish whiskey took 1% of the Scotch (whisky) market in France, he said, it would add 30-40% to the production of Irish whiskey – a great opportunity, he stressed.

Minister for Agriculture Michael Creed described the growing distilleries and breweries industry as “one of the shining lights for tillage”, adding that there are now over 20 distilleries and close to 100 micro-breweries – compared to the handful of businesses in previous generations. All of these need supplies of grain, he said. These can be

The minister added that 100 years ago the Irish whiskey industry was on top of the market globally – where Scotch is now – but is currently making ground as the fastest-growing brown spirit on the market, with growing demand.

Rented ground

Minister Creed highlighted that one of the biggest challenges facing tillage farmers at present is the fact that tillage is substantially dependent on rented ground.

He said that tillage farmers have on average the highest payments under CAP but to retain these payments they have to pay “extraordinary” rents for land.

The minister said that this is not financially sustainable because money farmers get in payments goes in rent as farmers are forced to take land for the entitlements in a “vicious cycle”.

He said that there is a need to deliver a fairer model without having unintended consequences such as this.