17 August 2012 No Comments by The Northern Standard

Yesterday’s dreadful weather conditions in many parts of the country, and the largely sodden summer that had preceded it, reinforced the lesson that, despite all the profound changes undergone by agricultural production in recent times, the vagaries of the climate remain an unchanging constant in the economic equation that determines the fortunes of the Irish farmer.
For those engaged in agriculture themselves, the lesson has been superfluous – and freighted with a bitter twist of irony given the fact that many sectors of production had been experiencing comparatively prosperous times in a period when other dimensions of the economy have been enmired in the ubiquitous downturn with little signs of appreciable recovery.
However, the impact of the poor weather conditions is likely to result in a considerable erosion of the improvement in farm incomes that has been experienced over recent times. Recent Teagasc studies have already confirmed a downward trend in farmer earnings – deriving in part from the effect of the weather but also reflecting a slump in milk prices worldwide and a creep upwards in input costs.
A factor also beginning to make itself felt is the reduction in farm aid schemes that has been part of agriculture’s financial landscape for the last three or four years. The removal of such supports are significant – their impact, which perhaps seemed manageable enough when income levels were rising, now becomes burdensome when the ‘safety net’ of remuneration from other sources is enfeebled.
Ominously, the Teagasc survey was conducted before the latest rather savage twist in the meteorology – and already sufficient for IFA President John Bryan to declare 2012 one of the most challenging years to face his members in recent times.
We can only presume that the difficulties confronting farmers in this county and elsewhere will escalate appreciably in proportion to the quantity of rain that has fallen in the most recent deluges – and those that might be yet to come in the remainder of what can only be sarcastically referred to as a summer.
One of the problems in bringing together an effective programme of assistance for farmers in the current circumstances is that it can be difficult to find an accurate scale of measurement for a crisis situation that can change significantly overnight, and usually not for the better.
In this regard, the advice imparted by South Monaghan member of Monaghan Co Council Pádraig McNally this week (see story, Page one) is sound.
Colr McNally has called on farmers to immediately take stock of the quantity and quality of the silage they have available and make a determination of their winter feed requirements so they can act straight away to address any projected deficit.
This is an exercise that should be conducted systematically by our farm organisations in order to determine accurately the scale of the current crisis situation, and those areas of the county that perhaps most urgently require assistance.
Having the knowledge of where the need resides is one thing – effectively and expeditiously addressing it is another.
The Dept of Agriculture and the Government in general usually come in for a high degree of criticism at these times of difficulty in the farming sector for being slow to respond to the situation and haphazard in the application of the remedies that they do come up with.
Even allowing for some degree of the opportunistic establishment-bashing that farm bodies sometimes indulge themselves in, the attacks made on the speed and effectiveness of the Government response are very often valid.
It seems incredible that we do not have in this country a fully thought out, and constantly updated, emergency response strategy to deal with the effects of extreme weather conditions on agricultural land – and the practical difficulties that farmers have to overcome, often in extremis, as a result of them.
Strategies are in place to cope with all manner of major national accidents and disasters in this country – but there does not seem to be a specific plan, and the resources necessary to implement it, kept in readiness when dreadful summer weather undermines the foundations of what is still our most important national industry.
It is not as if such weather conditions are a once-in-a-generation event – they are experienced comparatively frequently in this country and always have been, and are likely to grow more common if the predictions about the changing global climate hold true.
Bringing forward farm payments or allowing relaxations in the calendar farming regime to extend the period for the spreading of fertilisers are all measures that will have a remedial effect on the situation facing farmers at present if they are implemented – but they are only piecemeal solutions.
Surely it would behove our farm advisory services, farmer representative organisations and the relevant Government Depts to come together before the end of this year and put in place an emergency response plan for agriculture to deal specifically with the impact of sustained extreme weather.
Substantial funding for this initiative should be ringfenced by the Government, and matched by Europe, which has more than a vested interest in ensuring that the relative prosperity which the agricultural sector in this country was beginning to enjoy is not jeopardised.
At a time when Irish farming was showing remarkable resilience in the tide of a variety of economic and globalisation factors which it could not comfortably predict or meaningfully influence, its recovery should not be allowed to be undone by an eternal adversary as regular and measurable as the bad weather.

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