It’s time to introduce a crop insurance scheme for Irish tillage farmers

The Irish weather has conspired, yet again, to hole the prospects for tillage farmers below the water line.

Large swathes of cereal crops, particularly in the north of the country, have been flattened by the recent wind and rain.

As a consequence, cereal growers will be gearing up for a salvage operation over the coming weeks, as opposed to the much anticipated bountiful harvest.

Winter wheat crops had been looking particularly well this year. But, in many cases, this potential will not now be realised. The end result will be a dramatic fall-off in the returns which tillage farmers make this year. And the most galling aspect to all of this is the fact no one can be blamed for the carnage that has ensued over recent days.

King Canute tried to hold back the tide many centuries ago. He failed, because it is not possible to control nature. And, in the same vein, Irish tillage farmers have no option but to work with the weather, in all its moods.

Flattened crops will produce reduced yields of lower quality grain. Straw quality and yields will also be compromised. In my own case, I can well remember the impact of poor weather on barley and wheat grown in 2007, 2008 and 2012. The end result was a pretty hefty drain on my own expenses. But one has only to reflect back on the atrocious spell of weather last harvest, which dealt such a blow to cereal growers from Cork right up the west coast to Donegal.

At a fundamental level, Irish agriculture needs a vibrant tillage sector. This fact has been highlighted repeatedly by farm ministers, Teagasc and the hierarchy of the Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA). But a combination of poor grain prices and repeated bad harvests has resulted in the area laid down in crops shrinking significantly over recent years.

And the prospect of yet another challenging harvest coming down the tracks in 2017 is going to make the decision of sowing out ground in grass, as opposed to cereals, all the more attractive for Irish farmers.

It strikes me that the most obvious response to all of this is the introduction of a voluntary crop insurance scheme. And the most obvious candidate to run it is the IFA. The organisation in question already represents the business interests of tillage farmers in a number of ways, the agreeing of malting barley contracts being a case in point. Details can be decided at a later date. But the principle involved would be that of growers paying a modest fee to obtain insurance cover on their crops in the event of weather-related losses incurred at harvest.

There would also be an onus on seed companies, fertiliser suppliers, other crop input businesses and feed merchants to pay into the pot, as they rely heavily on the tillage sector for their livelihoods. Crucially, the envisaged scheme would come into play at a time of genuine crisis for growers across a significant swathe of the tillage sector, as that experienced in 2016.

The reality is that crop insurance schemes work. It is now accepted practice that farmers in the United States will seek cover of this nature on an annual basis, as a matter of course. So why should the same principle not hold for Irish tillage farmers?

Cereal crops are expensive to grow. The cost of seed, fertiliser, sprays and machinery – not to mention farmers’ own time and associated contracting charges – continue to mount up. So surely it’s time to give growers some way of taking the risk out of a weather-decimated harvest, which can make the investment in crop inputs and management systems, made up to that point, count for absolutely nothing.