The new Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) will be indicative of the many challenges that face tillage farmers, and agriculture as a whole, in the years ahead.
CAP, climate, biodiversity, environment, nitrates, emissions, etc, seem set to form a huge bank of obstacles which have to be overcome alongside uncontrolled and uneven market pressures.
Agriculture and tillage have always embraced change but what seems to lie ahead of us now looks set to force change at a pace like we have never seen before. The many strands of the CAP are added to the varying policy objectives set in Farm to Fork, sustainability, emissions legislation, pesticide reduction, water quality, air quality, etc.
These must all be tackled as part of, and separate to, the objectives of the new CAP. Farmers are the ones who have to grapple with what sometimes seem like contradictory obligations.
Policymakers would do well to remember that many of these new policy targets are now deemed necessary because of where previous policies have taken us. Policies that have provided European people with adequate nutritious food to help prolong their lives and living standards.
The EU support systems militated totally against idle land for decades, ruling it out of direct support. Now, much of that land area that provided biodiversity through nature has been removed and cleared to make it eligible for aid. Farmers were obliged to have it in good agricultural and environmental condition (GAEC). Now we are expected to turn the clock back while it would have been much more satisfactory to have encouraged nature along the way, as well as food production.
All these issues will force very considerable change on agriculture, farming and farmers. It is at times like this that one must wonder if the direct supports from Europe are worth it, given that so many of these objectives might not be considered by farmers except for the critical importance of those aids for farm profitability and survival.
We are where we are because EU policy has created the farming we have.
This next CAP would appear to be the most dramatic policy change yet, as it is taking a lot of what had been production-based supports away from tillage farmers while demanding more from them in return.
While changes will affect all farmers, it would seem at this point that the tillage sector will be worst hit once again. These measures include the ongoing convergence, the front-loading of entitlements for smaller farmers, the capping of maximum entitlement payments, and a range of eco schemes which seem likely to take away more money than they will give back.
There are new demands about what you must do and regulations about what you cannot do. There is an attempt to control land use and therefore take away the right of the individual to produce what is most financially advantageous while giving less in return.
Doing more for less may seem like a good idea to our political masters but there is very little evidence that they are leading by example. While the rest of society targets shorter working weeks, those who produce the ultimate necessity of food are being scapegoated in the search for solutions to problems that are not of their making and which nobody wants to pay for.
In the last CAP, the only farming sector that was forced to take on board actions with a direct cost to meet the requirements of the 30% Greening obligation was tillage. While most would agree that some of these measures were the fundaments of good farming, such as rotation, there is no recognition of that compliance in this CAP other than to make these measures compulsory while adding even more.
New CAP measures
There are many changes that will affect tillage farming in the years ahead, but the withdrawal of EU support through the different measures in the CAP will have the greatest impact. There will also be other changes as we are likely to see more protein crop production and, hopefully, better and more real rotations.
However, a number of the new measures being proposed for tillage defy any reasonable logic. An obligation to force growers to plant a different crop in each field every year could easily drive farmers back to a two-crop farming system where those crops are alternated every year, a bit like soya and maize in many parts of the world.
Also, an obligation to not crop permanent grassland would prevent any expansion in the sector even if it were economically viable.
Much has been written on the proposed obligations in GAEC but, in fairness, the Department of Agriculture is attempting to negate the worst effects of some of these. However, it will be interesting to see how the relevant ones are implemented in other sectors of farming compared to tillage.
It is easier to understand the context for some of these proposals in respect of the open plains in many European countries with little or no hedgerow or any network of landscape features.
We may well see a range of schemes introduced to try to directly support the tillage sector, but they are unlikely to be enough to help tillage complete for a land base that would provide greater carbon storage opportunities, while also reducing our dependence on imported feedstuffs.
A balanced agriculture
While making best use of grazed grass is unquestionably the cheapest source of feed for Irish ruminant livestock, balanced agricultural development would look to address deficits in any individual farming system by attempting to develop solutions to specific problems for the good of agriculture.
Unfortunately, Ireland has failed to date in this regard and it has resulted in increased dependence on imported feedstuffs which could be used by others to challenge the claims of “Irish” or “grass-fed” on some of our food exports.
There is a lot of talk about equivalent standards and carbon leakage for imports but history has shown there have been too many negative decisions by the EU in relation to tillage for farmers to place any faith in them until after (if) they are delivered.
Sustainability implies local security of input supplies but it is questionable whether farmers themselves even want that. It is only when consumers choose to drive the sustainability agenda that the supply chain will pay any heed to provenance.
There will be other policy drivers that will affect the future of tillage. Pesticides, fertiliser and nitrates will bring additional challenges.
Regarding pesticides, we will lose more important plant protection tools and be obliged to use less.
Cuts in fertiliser rates through nitrates could also be a serious issue as most farmers are max-rate compliant and tillage shows high nutrient use efficiency. We also employ a range of technologies to optimise (and reduce) the nitrogen applied to crops.
The lower carbon footprint of well-managed tillage land continues to be ignored as being part of the solution for agricultural emissions. There may be some additional losses if grassland comes into tillage but you must crack eggs to make an omelette.
One of the major challenges with policy is to avoid contradictions. If we want to show sustainability, we need to be more self-sufficient in raw materials. But we cannot grow more grain if we are not allowed to access more acres. Tillage land could also store carbon more effectively and utilise nutrients from livestock farms but we cannot do this if there is no opportunity to apply them.
As well as better rotations and increased protein production, there will be other changes in how we farm in the coming decade. Who knows what markets will bring but any prospects of regulating imports to ensure equivalent standards as for European producers would seem unlikely within current trade policy.
We are likely to see increased emphasis on green cover on stubbles, but this may be more driven by nitrates and the prospect of carbon farming.
The countryside will look different as hedgerows get taller again, and possibly wider.
We will see even more precision-farming tools on farms to help input use efficiency and minimise waste.
We should see increased use of organic soil amendments – from straw to animal manures, composts and catch crop production.
Higher soil organic matter means additional carbon storage and potential income over time, lower establishment fuel costs, a wider planting window, reduced leaching of nutrients and higher field yields.
A tightening of the manure application season is a worry in this regard. This would limit autumn application opportunities and, therefore, total use. Might such materials be applied later where they are to be incorporated ahead of a winter crop?
The tillage sector has long borne the brunt of EU policy, especially in recent CAPs. This seems set to continue as policymakers have not grasped the essential nature of tillage in good agricultural practice and land use.