Rising to the harvest challenge

Ray Ryan hears why tillage farmers are facing into a hard harvest, with incomes driven down by grain imports, poorer prices and reduced yields.

Harvest time in Ireland, with fields of golden corn, often drenched in glorious sunshine beneath a canopy of blue skies and against a background of hazy mountains and green landscapes, has inspired poets, painters and prose writers for generations.

Sometimes, high winds and heavy rain spoil the views, damaging crops and creating difficulties for machinery accessing fields on soggy ground.

However, there is always a sense of satisfaction for tillage farmers when they complete the round-the-clock harvest work before the weather breaks.

Warm sunshine early last week, progressed some of that work, done nowadays with the help of mighty hi-tech machines, with satellite guidance systems.

They look like military convoys as agri contractors drive them along public roads from farm to farm.

Yet, the old days of the threshing are still remembered in many communities with festivals filled with the nostalgia of busy periods when the hard chore of harvesting the grain crops always involved neighbours helping each other out.

The lyrics of the song, The Old Threshing Mill, made popular by Foster and Allen, evoke days of thirsty work, bottles of porter, bacon, cabbage and floury spuds laced with butter.

When it was all over, thanks was given to god and the neighbours. Some people living near the coast might spend a few days relaxing by the sea in Ballybunion, Salthill or Tramore, enjoy a flutter on the horses at Listowel Races or increasingly go to the national ploughing championships.

However, this year the country’s 11,000 tillage farmers, down from 18,000 growers in 2000, are not in the mood for much celebrating because they say they are facing a very challenging time financially.

The Irish Farmers Association maintains that growers stand to lose €9,000 per farm due to a range of factors including imports of grain, poorer prices and reduced yields.

It estimates the severe income drop will be in the region of €10om and is warning that the sector is in imminent danger of collapse, with major implications for the livestock and drinks industries.

James Hegarty, a 39-year-old barley grower from Whitechurch, Co Cork, was one of more than 100 farmers who took part in a recent IFA protest against the importation of dry barley grain at Foynes Port, Co Limerick.

“I’m tillage farming all my life, since I left school, nearly 20 years ago. Times are tougher now than ever. Costs are increasing and red tape is increasing, as are the requirements for quality and traceability,” he said.

IFA grain chairman Liam Dunne said the future of grain farming in Ireland is at stake, with current price offers significantly below the cost of production.

“Over the last four years the area sown to cereals has fallen by over 100,000 acres and this trend will accelerate unless there is a rapid improvement in the income situation,” he said.

Calling on the trade to pull on the green jersey to ensure the survival of the grain sector, he said the IFA is insisting on the maximum levels of native grain in rations this winter and will be keeping a vigilant watch on the quality of ration on offer to farmers.

Meanwhile, glorious sunshine early last week facilitated the harvesting, but subsequent heavy showers of rain interrupted the work. About half the harvest has yet to be done. The expectation is for the work to continue into September.

To date, close on 60% of the crop has been harvested in the southern half of the country. However, in the northern half only 40% of the crop is cut to date.

IFA president Joe Healy has set out a number of key actions that he says are needed for the survival of the industry, which is worth €400m to the economy.

These include the abolition of tariffs and anti-dumping duties on imports as fertilisers now account for 40% of variable production costs.

The IFA is seeking a review by the European Union Competition Authority of the cost of plant protection products because it says these are priced significantly lower to growers here than in other regions across the world.

Growers are also calling for priority access to low-cost working capital similar to their EU counterparts, and increased GLAS agri-environmental payments.

An extension of the protein crop area to allow coupled payment, TAMS (modernisation) investment programme and a reduction in the burden of compliance for greening are also being sought.

For this year’s harvest, sowings got off to a late start due to a cold, wet and unusually late spring. And even then the main spring barley crop was sown in two distinct phases with the majority of the crop (80% +) sown in April.

After the late start, crops were slow to develop and ripen. The winter barley harvest wrapped up in the northern part of the country in the last few days.

Winter barley yields were very variable this year ranging from 2t/ac to 4.3t/ac with the average for the country down by an estimated 0.7t/ac on last season.

The IFA reports that bushel weights for barley (a quality parameter) are significantly higher than samples from imports.

While samples from the first of the winter wheat crop indicate excellent quality, yields, while respectable, are down on last season. Late ripening, coupled with the recent break in the weather, has delayed harvesting, now running 10 to 15 days late.

Overall production is forecast at 2.1 million tonnes, about half a million tonnes below last season’s good crop.

The decline in sowings, estimated at 40,000 acres for the current crop year, is expected to continue, according to the IFA, as current price offers are under production cost.


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