Speaking at the Lismullin Institute, Michael Hoey, managing director at Country Crest, said if arable farmers did not get paid they simply would not be there. He said while it was fantastic the dairy sector in Ireland was thriving, it was important there was balance across all of agriculture.

“I was involved in Food Harvest 2020 and Food Wise 2025 and it was seen very much so that the only show in town was the dairy industry. The beef industry as you know is suffering badly. There’s no margin in it and the tillage sector is coming behind that as we’re seen as a means of cheap feed for the dairy sector,” said Hoey.

As a solution to the weak position tillage farmers find themselves in, Hoey said it was time to put a framework in place similar to the co-op model in dairy.

He referenced recent efforts to bring the sugar beet industry back to Ireland under a co-operative structure. Rather than producing raw materials, beet would be further processed into value-added goods such as bioethanol and degradable bioplastics.

Medicinal cannabis

Hoey said the pharmaceutical industry should also be targeted. The fact the majority of drips used in Europe were manufactured in Ireland using imported ingredients was identified as an area of opportunity.

He said companies were willing to buy Irish ingredients and that the key advantage was, rather than supplying discounters, they were not price sensitive. Continuity of supply was more important.

Looking to other areas within the pharmaceutical sector, he said medicinal cannabis had huge potential.

“I know that everyone thinks this is up-in-the-sky stuff but medicinal cannabis is going to be here in the future. It’s modern pain relief and it works. People all over Europe are embracing these technologies and they’re growing them.”

He referenced British Sugar, which stopped growing tomatoes in its greenhouses in the UK and instead grows medicinal cannabis. He said there were markets and margins available to vegetable growers that could never be provided through fresh produce.

Irish whiskey

Whiskey was an area he saw that tillage farmers could add value to their grain due to the high demand for Irish whiskey.

“The only thing Irish about most of our Irish whiskeys is the water that is in it and I think that is an indictment on our industry,” Hoey stated bluntly.

“We need to get legislation changed. If we’re going to be as good as we think we are at distilling Irish whiskey and sending it all over the world, at the least the ingredients should be grown in Ireland.”