Private farm advisers have said that the Teagasc-led Agricultural Sustainability Support and Advisory Programme (ASSAP) must “adapt urgently” to allow advisers outside Teagasc’s fold join the flagship programme to give farmers free and confidential water quality advice.

The Agricultural Consultants Association (ACA) also called for the Department of Agriculture to fund a headquarters for private advisers and provide the organisation with the resources to employ nitrates specialists in a bid to secure the derogation into the future.

Speaking to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Agriculture, ACA president Noel Feeney stated that mandatory annual training on nitrates should be rolled out for farmers over 130kg N/ha in a similar format to that provided to those participating in Agri-Climate Rural Environment Scheme (ACRES).

Feeney claimed that private advisers should have access to the same training delivered to Teagasc advisers on nitrates.

'Army in waiting'

The association’s former president Tom Canning explained that out of “125,000 active farmers” across the country, 30,000 have no engagement with a farm adviser and that private advisers deal with more farmers on schemes than Teagasc does.

“Of those, we [ACA] are dealing with 55,000, our counterparts in Teagasc are dealing with 43,000 – we have active engagement with 98,000,” he said.

“We are an army in waiting, yet I have been in the advisory business for over 34 years. Do I feel engaged with? No.

The ACA expressed frustration this week in being overlooked in ASSAP. / Donal O'Leary

“I have been excluded from the ASSAP programme, from the Signpost programme and, more than likely, I will be excluded from the new EIP on water quality and I feel angry about it, because I have been dealing with derogation farmers on a consistent basis for a very long number of years.

“We are being under-utilised and underfunded. We can achieve a lot. We have achieved it in a lot of other schemes’ delivery for the Department of Agriculture, so it is important that that message is loud and clear."

Impact of derogation loss

Canning warned that the possibility of losing the 220kg N/ha derogation is real if Brussels’ decision hangs on only one or two years’ worth of water quality data and neglects to take account of grass-based production systems.

“There are 7,000 farmers in derogation plus 6,000 exporting slurry. There are only 13,000 out of 125,000 - just over 10% - who are really affected by the nitrates limit of 170kg N/ha,” he told TDs and senators.

“By simply taking away the derogation from these guys and hopefully achieving water quality improvements overnight is a myth. It is misinformation.”