As the countdown to this weekend’s General Election accelerates, many farmers feel disillusioned and disappointed by the country’s political leaders when it comes to their knowledge on farming – and their perceived unwillingness to learn.

On the campaign trail over the last few weeks candidates have attempted to shower farmers with a lot of ‘plámásing’ when it comes to the agricultural sector.

Some politicians proclaim agriculture’s importance; others propose cutting the suckler herd – but, let’s face it, very few of them actually seem to know anything about it.

According to one party leader in an RTÉ debate, one hectare of forestry on every family farm is going to “help protect Irish farming from Brexit”. Their argument on why this one hectare of forestry should be imposed on family-farms only is yet to be answered. Once that’s clarified they might explain the Brexit connection.

But their silence towards one sector in particular has been spectacularly deafening.

While the political parties routinely focus on livestock and the planting of trees when it comes to debate on the country’s climate and biodiversity challenges, they also continue to ignore a sector that is one of the lowest emitters of greenhouse gases (GHGs), claims to be carbon neutral, promotes diversity and which provides food and habitats for our wildlife.

That sector, of course, is tillage.

Here in Ireland, fields of barley provide grain for whiskey; fields of beans and oilseed rape provide food for pollinators. Grass margins and cover crops increase biodiversity as well as improving soil and water quality.

Yet among the vague agricultural manifestos of the political parties, tillage barely gets a look in.

Get serious

Over the last few weeks there have been numerous articles on this site documenting the low-emission track record coming from the tillage sector – a reality backed up by widespread research.

Along with this, it currently produces high-quality grain used in the production of products like whiskey, beer and porridge.

Yet there is still plenty of room for expansion.

Irish whiskey accounted for 50% of the growth in Irish drinks exports in 2019 – those exports accounted for €1.45 billion. If this business is to thrive it needs to be fueled by Irish grain. Yet there’s no serious mention of this by the parties.

Aside from the small amount of artisan flour being produced we import our milling wheat – mainly from the UK. Another opportunity to provide high-quality food and reduce emissions.

And of course there is the production of animal feed.

We currently import approximately four million tonnes of animal feed into this country and while recognising that some feed imports will always be required, there are opportunities there to promote an increased use of Irish grain by the livestock sector. This in turn promotes a sustainable industry, a green image and can boost exports.

Those exports will help to pay for all these parties spending on housing and pensions.

The Government’s target is currently to plant 8,000ha of trees over 20 years. The Green Party wants to plant 20,000ha of trees over 10 years. But where will the food come from? And what will happen to the farmers that plant the trees?

The Green Party also want to reward farmers for carbon sequestration – that’s an automatic plus for the tillage sector, whether the Green Party realise that or not.

Food island

Ireland is often referred to as a “food island” – and farmers should be paid for producing food.

The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) was originally established in the EU to ensure high-quality, affordable food was produced for the EU consumer. In order to make that food affordable farmers were compensated with subsidies.

Now some political parties want farmers to be paid as part of the CAP for minding the land.

Please don’t insult farmers. Farmers care more about the land than anyone else. The majority have always minded it; while producing the highest quality food.

There are more answers to Ireland’s questions on climate change than “planting trees” and “cutting the herd” – support for tillage could have an immediate impact.

Maybe our election candidates should take a bit of time to learn about farming.

In this evening’s episode of FarmLand, AgriLand news editor, Claire Mc Cormack, will examine the headline farming priorities in the manifestos of the main political parties. Tune in at 5:30pm.