Tillage farmers worry about future after heavy rain and ‘pear-shaped’ 2023

By Gráinne Ní Aodha, PA

Irish tillage farmers have raised concerned about the wider impacts of around 10 months of continuous wet weather on their sector.

Regular rainfall since last July has meant that conditions on fields are difficult, if not impossible, for planting barley, oat and bean crops this spring.

A window is passing for Irish farmers who need to decide whether they risk sowing crops during dry spells.

Bobby Miller, a Co Laois tillage-only farmer who plants winter barley, gluten free oats, spring malt and barley, spring beans and oilseed rape.

At the end of August into early September, his planting season starts with winter oilseed rape crop, which is visible from roads at this time of year in the form of bright yellow fields.

At the end of September into early October is the ideal time to sow them winter barley, winter oats, and winter wheat.

Finally, in the spring, is when spring barley, beans, and spring oats and spring wheat, sometimes hybrid rye is sowed.

But this year and last year have seen “intense” rainfall during key sowing periods for tillage farmers.

“In 2023, we had a very dry February and then in March when it’s peak spring crops sowing, practically the whole month was wet, we didn’t actually get out there so our crops were a month to six weeks later than we’d like,” he said.

“What happens then is the harvest is delayed, yield reduces and quality reduces. We grow some crops that totally depend on reaching the quality standards.

“And then the harvest time was real wet as well. It just went completely pear-shaped for us in 2023.”

That streak of bad weather is continuing into key times in spring this year.

“I’d say 2 per cent, definitely less than 5 per cent, of spring crops are sown in Ireland. That’s two years in a row – last year was a late spring as well – and this year again, which is usual.”

Patrick Dahaene, a potato and tillage farmer in north Dublin, said that many grain farmers are trying to decide whether they plant crops this spring and hope for the best, or leave the land fallow.

“We’ve got water lying on top of ploughed ground, it’s just impossible to get anything done. The ground will not carry machinery at the moment, of any description, heavy or light.”

He told RTÉ that the window for growing crops has already passed for optimum growth, with early April seen as a cut-off point for planting spring wheat and beans.

“I’m farming nearly 40 years and my father farmed before that and we’ve had years that were difficult but not as prolonged as they are now – I don’t think we’ve had six consecutive dry days since July of last year.”

Mr Miller, who is chairman of Irish Grain Growers Group, said that if Irish tillage farmers don’t produce grains, they are in competition with imported grains.

He said that two million tonnes of grain and pulses are grown in Ireland, with 75-80 per cent of grains and pulses used to feed farm animals in Ireland, while five million tonnes are imported from around the world.

He said that a crop of winter gluten-free oats he grew last year were carbon neutral, according to Irish state agency Teagasc’s standards, while what is imported has a higher carbon footprint and a lower husbandry standards.

Mr Miller said a national revisiting of the tillage and agriculture sector as a whole is needed, and that climate change has become “more front and centre in the agricultural world, no question about it”.

“It’s part of your decision-making on farms, because – as tillage farmers, especially – we’re totally dependent on weather.

“Are we saying climate change is here on our door? You could say yes.

“The climate is evolving as far as I’m concerned, it’s evolving.

“Met Éireann are saying we’re going to have wetter periods and drier, drought-like periods.

“So how do we how do we adapt to that as farmers?”

He said they would need to have a “serious look” at how crops are grown and how to salvage crops in future.

The Government has announced a tillage payment of €100 per hectare to deal with the immediate pressures, which a farmers’ group has warned falls short of required.

Max Potterton, the Irish Farmers Association’s senior policy executive on tillage, said that it was calling for a €250 payment per hectare to stem an exodus from the industry.

Some farmers have suggested that the area under tillage in Ireland could drop by up to 11% this year, and follows a 7 per cent drop in the cereal crop area in 2023, according to the Central Statistics Office.

“Every euro matters at a ‘per hectare’ level really,” Mr Potterton said.

“We don’t want a mass exodus from tillage. We’re in the position now, if we see a significant drop in 2024, that could precipitate further declines to 2025 and 2026.

“It’s a confidence game, and one damaging year can do an awful lot of harm. The importance of 250, or a hectare is it better addresses the challenges with the costs of land rental and the costs of declining grain prices.”

Minister for Agriculture Charlie McConalogue said he hoped the scheme would give farmers “confidence to put seed in the soil”.

“Anyone who is looking to plant in fields this spring or planted last autumn, it was very difficult. There is still a window available, thankfully the weather forecast for the next few days seems to be improving,” he told RTÉ.

“But farmers’ confidence is really dented and I want to give them the confidence to go ahead and plant this year because we need our tillage sector to be strong and we need to see those crops.”