BY EMMA CONNOLLY
ACTIONS speak louder than words – the big fear is that this just a talking shop.
That’s the verdict of prominent West Cork tillage farmer Jim O’Regan who was commenting on the just-published report on the future of tillage sector in this country by the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture Food and the Marine
Containing 35 recommendations relating to the sector and giving a ‘road map’ on how to develop and grow it, Mr O’Regan said while he broadly welcomed it, he had little faith in it.
A key aim of the report was to encourage ‘discussion on new ideas for tillage in order to allow the sector to grow and innovate in the future.’
The only West Cork member of the Department of Agriculture Tillage Forum which met last February in and in October ’16, Mr O’Regan said the report’s recommendations were not wide ranging enough it was now time ‘to cut out the chat.’
He called for an immediate and critical first action to be taken by ringfencing €35m from the €250m announced by the Minister for Agriculture in the recent budget for the tillage sector.
This, he said, would help tillage farmers restructure loans and clear debts with co-ops and other merchants.
A previous similar initiative had not worked as he claimed it ‘had been hijacked by the banks.’
Secondly he called for Ireland to follow Scotland’s lead in developing our whiskey industry in tandem with the tillage sector.
‘The Scottish whiskey industry is worth €5bn – that’s 50% of the total Irish agricultural exports a year which is €11.2bn. We have similar climatic conditions to Scotland and could grow grain for distilling instead of importing maize. Some 80,000 tonnes of maize are being imported in this country – what kind of message is that sending out?’
The distilling industry is one of huge growth, he said, adding that whiskey is Bord Bia’s fastest-growing product.
Further investment, he said was also needed in Oakpark in Carlow for R&D to see how Irish grain could be used in other industries: ‘More funds are needed for researchers to operate – their hands are tied behind their backs.’
The report recommended an update review of the potential for a revival of the sugar beet industry for the production of ethanol – but again Mr O’Regan was not hopeful of action in this area.
He grows wheat, oats, barley and beet for the animal industry andsaid the loss of the sugar beet industry was a catastrophic blow.
‘Beet is the most profitable crop in tillage farming, but it was needlessly thrown away,’ he said acknowledging huge capital investment would be required to develop a processing plant, although a site had been identified in Kildare.
Essentially, Mr O’Regan said it needed to be a level playing field when it came to dairy and tillage.
‘After all tillage is vital for livestock. Look what’s happening with the cost of bales – we could produce them for €30 a bale but due to the scarcity caused by the bad weather and the like they are being imported at a cost of €100 from Spain.
He concluded: ‘The government and department of agriculture need to get their act together and start treating the tillage industry like the dairy industry.’
IFA Grain Committee chairman Liam Dunne had similar sentiments, calling for action and describing the report as being ‘light on any kind of detail on a plan to improve things.’