The IFA has been fighting hard for a compensation package for tillage farmers and, to be fair, they got the story plenty of profile in all the major press outlets. This piled pressure on Minister for Agriculture Michael Creed, and last week's Tillage Forum ended with an agreement from Creed to look at crisis funding “in more detail”. He added that we need more information about how to distribute any such crisis funding using “verifiable audit data for who lost what”.
There's no doubt that many tillage farmers had a wipeout last year, especially those in the south and west, but the minister is right to be cautious, as some others had a reasonably good harvest. The bad weather affected crops that were late ripening and got caught by end-of-summer deluges. Many farmers along the eastern tillage belt from Meath through to Carlow harvested their crops without a problem, but in other places crops were destroyed by persistent heavy rain.
The underlying issue here, aside from the elephantine question of food prices generally, is our approach to tillage farming. As the climate shifts more towards heavy downpours, we get less of the gentle soft rain we are used to and more of a destructive pounding from violent showers. Large open fields are vulnerable to wind and rain damage at harvest time, while nutrient leaching and soil erosion are issues throughout the year.
This is costing farmers extra in fertilizers at a time when European tariffs on non-EU fertilizer imports are resulting in very high prices. But recent calls for a reduction in EU fertilizer tariffs are probably unrealistic in the long term. The EU is seeking ways of reducing emissions and the fertilizer industry is a major polluter, so keeping prices high serves the dual purpose of supporting Europe's own fertilizer industry, while keeping farmers' usage to a minimum.
Price rises by certain companies in the run-up to spring sowing is cynical and should be curtailed by legislation. It hurts those most who can least afford it. Big growers bought their fertilizers and treatments months ago at low prices, but smaller indebted farmers must pay the premium every time. This is neither fair nor in anyone's best interest, save the companies and the merchants. As argued here before, we need a diversity of growers and for this we need a level playing pitch.
Going forward it is likely the EU will incentivise farming methods that rely less on artificial fertilizers. Research bodies are looking at systems that reinforce soil structure and shelter crops from wind and rain. They want to reduce nutrient waste, as this is a major issue for both pollution of waterways and increasing farming costs. At present nutrient run-off is costing EU farmers millions every year. If we can find a way of reducing these losses, we can close the gap towards a decent profit margin. In the short term cover crops are a good option, but we also need long-term solutions.
Agroforestry is a serious contender as it can save on fertilizer costs without affecting yields. Deep-rooted trees draw up nutrients from underground strata that crops cannot access, while improving soil structure and durability against extreme weather. Meanwhile, we are at the mercy of the elements and last year's freak summer storms could become 'new normal' weather patterns that we must live with and survive under. So the industry will need to adapt.