IFA’s All Irish Rations drive promotes quality feeds manufactured exclusively from Irish cereal and protein crops.

Launched by Agriculture Minister Michael Creed on Tuesday, IFA’s All Irish Rations drive is promoting quality rations manufactured exclusively from Irish produced cereal and protein crops.

It is backed by a number of Irish compound feed mills, the largest one being Dairygold.

A dramatic increase in the supply of quality Irish protein crops means that compound feed mills can produce rations exclusively made from high quality feed ingredients such as wheat, oats, barley, peas and beans exclusively produced in Ireland.

And new processing technologies for cereals make rolled grain safe for feeding at high levels to livestock.

The Irish protein crops have followed introduction of a coupled payment for these crops in Ireland in 2015, resulting in a five-fold increase in the area sown, to over 11,000ha. 

This year, an estimated 55,000 tonnes of peas and beans (the bean harvest is forecast at 51,000t, and peas at 4,200t) will be harvested from Irish tillage farms.

“It’s great to see the Irish Minister for Agriculture standing up and saying ‘we have to look after ourselves first’,” say Cork grain grower James Hegarty. 

“Our biggest problem here is that with grain prices down on the floor for the last four years, if we do hit a year when yields are poor - and so far, things don’t look great from that point of view - and we get poor yields and poor prices, then we’re in serious trouble, with the possibility that a large section of the Irish grain cereal industry might disappear.

"You could possibly lose industry viability altogether, Having an Irish base for the production of cereal is very important.”

“We’ve started to talk to some of the merchants and co-ops about the harvest. The prices that were paid last year for grain were in and around the €135-€140 per tonne. 

"That was a level the people managed to survive on, and it was a level at which the buyer at the other end, our dairy and beef cousins, didn’t seem to have any complaints about. 

"What we are saying quite clearly at the moment is, at the very least, we’re going to have to see €135/tonne as a minimum price for barley. Anything less than that is not something we can live with.”

According to IFA President Joe Healy, “political inaction” is accelerating the demise of Irish cereal growing, and this is the fourth year running where prices achieved by Ireland’s grain producers have failed to cover costs.

“Preliminary sowing estimates for Ireland’s 2016 harvest show a further significant decline in plantings, of over 40,000ha since 2012,” says Mr Healy. 

“The spring barley area has been the worst affected, with a fall of over 20,000ha since last season. 

"Exceptional grain yields over the last two seasons have failed to halt the decline, as farmers struggle to cope with a combination of low grain prices, expensive inputs, falling Direct Payments, and increased compliance costs due to greening. 

"In addition, Ireland’s dysfunctional banking system is forcing farmers to pay non-competitive interest rates or depend on expensive merchant credit.”

The question is how much longer such a situation can continue before an entire industry sector becomes unviable?

“It’s very difficult,” says IFA Grain Chairman Liam Dunne. 

“What many of them are doing is cutting back completely from investment on the farms; buying little or no new machinery to keep down costs and generally cutting any corners that they can, but grain growers are like gardeners, it’s very difficult to tell them to stop growing!”

“I suppose grain growers are always optimistic,” says Cork grain grower James Hegarty.

“Before, you would have looked at it in five-year plans. You’d have one bumper year, one bad year and three average years in the middle. In the past, things generally panned out that way. Guys would suffer one, possibly two bad years but this is totally new territory we’re in now.”

Irish grain growers are competing in a global marketplace, and a series of bumper harvests over the last few years has lowered grain prices on the world stage.

“The big producers in North America and Eastern Europe impact price,” says James. “We produce possibly one million tonnes of barley in Ireland, yet our price is set by the 30,000 or 40,000 tonnes of it that comes into the country on a boat.”

“We’re tied to the ground with red tape and we produce grain to the highest standards and yet our price is set by grain coming in from whatever corner of the world where prices are cheapest.”

Some grain growers are turning to selling direct to dairy and beef farmers, often getting a slightly higher price for their crop by both cutting out middle men, and offering a more personal supply service. 

Many farmers also prefer to have a reliable quality supplier from just down the road, rather than taking a chance on the quality of imported produce.

“The farm-to-farm business cuts out the middlemen, so there might be a little more for the guy that’s selling it and may be a bit cheaper for the guy that’s buying it,” says Liam.

“It doesn’t work for everybody, because some farmers need mixed rations and various other needs that can only be served by a mill, but there are a lot of technical changes recently in the way that grain is stored and treated

“It can be difficult to organise sometimes, but some people find it lucrative if they can find a way to make it work. Some people are surviving quite well by working it that way.”

James also wonders at the requirement for “greening” in the current CAP, and if it’s not something that’s more relevant to farmers in other parts of Europe:

“There should be no requirement for greening in Ireland. Anyone that’s sat in a plane flying over Ireland and looked out the window will tell you that every second field is another shade of green, growing some other crop. 

"Greening policy is designed for the likes of Eastern Europe, where they have miles and miles of monoculture, and it’s shoe-horning a policy that’s not needed really. We have the most diverse landscape in all of Europe, I would argue.”

“We’re still waiting for the Commissioner to make things a lot simpler,” says Liam of greening issues. 

“The last time I was in Brussels, I was speaking to one of the Commission officials about it, and he certainly didn’t give me any impression that this was going to be either simple or farmer-oriented. It seemed far more likely that it was going to make things simpler for the administrators than for the people were trying to work with the systems.

“We don’t think, for example, that growing three crops in coastal areas is possible. We’ve had a lot of winter kill from storms this winter, and if you’re growing three crops in a coastal area, one of them can get killed completely and what do you do then?

“Then, you’ve the barley area, one of the more profitable areas of production.

“For the first time in 25 years, for example, we’re supplying all of Diageo’s needs in Ireland, both last year and this year, which is fantastic.

“But quite a few of those growers have been forced to grow other crops, simply to suit regulations.

“We have got an agreement with the Commission to bring in what they call an equivalent scheme. The regulations around that are just unworkable, however. 

"I think last year, we only had 21 or 22 farmers taking it up, when there should have been a couple of hundred of them taking it up.”


Lifestyle

Throw all the veg you’ve got into this easy dish.Jack Monroe’s recalibration supper recipe

In a time when our shopping and cooking needs to be efficient and easy, we are bringing back our One List, Five Meals recipe pages.Michelle Darmody's One list, Five meals

What is the future of fashion and how will the ‘high street’ look when this is all over? Corina Gaffey asks those in the knowThe future of fashion: How the crisis will impact the retail industry and what we wear

Surveying the global market, Des O’Sullivan says when the going gets tough, the tough get goingHow art world is putting changed times in picture

More From The Irish Examiner