Ireland, best-known for its grass-fed beef and dairy, has launched a €12mn crop cultivation scheme to boost grain production as the war in Ukraine creates a crunch in global supplies.
The Irish government on Tuesday approved a payment of €400 per hectare to encourage farmers to plant additional barley, wheat and oats, in a return to a “wartime tillage” programme last used during the second world war.
A sum likely to be a bit higher is planned for maize and beet, and farmers will be offered €300 per hectare for crops such as peas and beans.
Only about 7.5 per cent of Irish farmland is used to grow crops, equal to about 300,000 hectares, and the plan seeks to boost this by a further 25,000 hectares.
But farmers said the incentives were too small to counter the surging cost of fertiliser and fuel.
“It’s going to cost you in excess of €100 to run any tractor across an acre of ground, €250 a hectare . . . it’s a token gesture,” said Pat McCormack, head of the Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers Association. “For somebody that’s not in tillage, it’s not attractive.”
Matt Dempsey, who cultivates barley, oats, oilseed rape and beans on his farm south of Dublin, as well as raising cattle, said he had no spare land. Even if he did, the fertiliser “that last year would cost me €6,000 is today costing €21,000”.
The planting window was also closing fast, he explained. “The only crop that has any prospect is spring barley. It’s definitely too late for wheat,” said Dempsey, whose produce is used in Ireland’s iconic Guinness stout.
Charlie McConalogue, Ireland’s agriculture minister, told RTE radio that the tillage scheme would “significantly improve our capacity to grow grain”.
Ireland imports two-thirds of the grain it consumes, which is mostly used in animal feed. The European Commission is on Wednesday expected to propose €500mn of emergency funding to help farmers across the bloc.
Brussels is also on Wednesday likely to allow countries to plant animal feed crops on land left fallow for ecological reasons as part of the set-aside scheme and could approve extra subsidies to farmers from national governments to cope with spiralling costs.
The Irish Farmers’ Association warned that farmers would be stretched to meet existing outputs, let alone increase them. “This scheme . . . is not going to address the real issue, which is the cost and availability of inputs,” said Tim Cullinan, IFA president.
Ireland imports a quarter of its fertiliser from Russia, Belarus and Ukraine and a third of its maize from Ukraine. Most barley and wheat is imported from the UK.
The voluntary crop cultivation programme is reminiscent not only of a second world war compulsory tilling order but also an earlier drive, a century ago, to boost agriculture in the new Irish Free State under the slogan: “One more cow, one more sow, one more acre under the plough.”
“I can see the merit,” said Donald Scully, a dairy farmer in County Laois, but it was impractical and risked creating a vicious circle if farmers turned grassland they needed into arable land, reducing their output in the process. “I couldn’t do it because I need every acre I can to produce what I’m doing,” he said.
Helping farmers with fertiliser costs would be a better way to boost production, he said. “With the price of fertiliser, we’re basically working for nothing,” he said. “The price of fertiliser is nonsensical . . . but if we don’t put it in there, we’re going to be down in production.”
Additional reporting by Andy Bounds in Brussels