It's Monday evening and I'm on the way home from the office. Coming down the M11 at 7pm, I'm doing a steady 65 kilometres an hour.

So is everybody else, because the rain is relentless and very heavy. It's hard to see where you're going.

It takes all my concentration just to drive along the busy motorway and I'm going to be late.

I was hoping to get home in time to attend the special mass which was organised in the neighbouring parish of Kilrush to pray for better weather.

It's just another awful day in this disastrous spring for farming. I heard the next day that over 240 people, of all denominations, attended the mass. And that all those were there went away feeling better, the sense of solidarity being a consolation.

Better day

Tuesday was a better day. I was scribbling at home, but it was a drying day. The grass was whistling in the wind and the tumble dryer got a day off. It was shortlived, however.

Wednesday morning saw the rain back. After the bright day, another dull, damp morning was a little depressing. Someone remarked at breakfast that Fr Power’s mass hadn’t had the desired effect on the weather yet.

“It took Jesus three days to rise from the dead,” my son Peter replied. “I’d give Fr Power a week at least.”

I had a busy day ahead, wrapping any copy for print early, as Brenda Donohoe was on her way down to Wexford to talk to tillage farmers - me among them - for Countrywide.

We splashed through a sodden field and talked. I felt I was an inarticulate mess, but with the power of editing, Brenda managed to turn that into a reasonably sensible contribution for Saturday morning.

I'm indebted to her for that. I think that Countrywide provides an invaluable service, connecting the farming community with the wider community.

Just listening to Joe Warren, a fellow farmer in the area, a quiet man who would always be best side out, you’d get a sense of just how serious the situation is.

Joe suffered awfully last harvest, only planted 25% of his planned winter crops and has no spring work done as yet. The combination of all that has left so many farmers feeling vulnerable.

River Slaney project

I went from talking to Brenda to going into Enniscorthy for the launch of the Farming for Water: River Slaney Project.

This is closely aligned to the environmental improvement programme (EIP). The departure in this instance is that the driving force is Tirlán, a farmer-owned co-operative.

Minister for Agriculture Charlie McConalogue had been due to complete the formal launch, but a late-scheduled cabinet meeting meant he was needed in Dublin on the day after the election of Simon Harris as Taoiseach.

For those who like to doubt this Minister’s commitment, he travelled down to Enniscorthy early in the morning, met with the stakeholders, recorded a video to commend the project and then headed back up the M11 to government buildings.

It would have been far easier for Minister McConalogue to have recorded the video from his office and beamed it down, but I took his going the extra mile (120 miles round trip actually), as indicative of his view that initiatives like this are crucial to the sustainability of farming.

War effort

Tirlán CEO Jim Bergin made no secret of the fact that he views this EIP as part of the war effort to retain the current nitrates derogation.

He was unapologetic about the absolute need to do so, highlighting that half the Tirlán suppliers in the region have 60 cows or less (hardly the factory farming some would like to categorise it as).

The loss of the derogation could see a 60-cow farm reduced to 49 cows, which would make such farms uneconomic, Bergin asserted.

One of the crucial players in retaining the derogation is Bill Callanan, the chief inspector in the Department of Agriculture.

Tirlán launched the River Slaney project.

He spoke to the meeting and said that work is under way within the Department to make the case for retaining the current arrangements, but that every farmer needs to act responsibly in how they farm to help make a strong case.

Pat Murphy of Teagasc explained how advisers - both Teagasc and Tirlán - will be providing best-practice advice to farmers in Wicklow, Carlow and Wexford along the Slaney catchment.


So it's very stark that the derogation can only be retained if water quality is shown to be improving. When we go back to Brussels to attempt to retain the derogation, it will be in a new environment.

Not only will there be a new commissioner and a new European Commission, but for the first time there is the precedent that the maximum stocking rate across most of the country has been changed once.

Until 2023, the existing derogation had been retained, although always with evolving terms and conditions. Now that the maximum organic nitrogen loading has been reduced from 250 to 220 in most parts of the country once, it could easily happen again.

We've got to guard against a sense in Brussels that we took the pain, despite complaints from farmers and the best arguments of Government, and that we can absorb more pain. Those 60-cow farmers will be front and centre in the conversation.

Ask not what your contractor can do for you, ask what you can do for your contractor

The star speaker was Cheryl Poole, who farms with her husband Alan on the banks of the Bann river, a tributary of the Slaney. I was on Cheryl's farm in 2022 and spoke of it at the time.

That was a phenomenal evening, with a large crowd of which half were non-farmers. Cheryl spoke so passionately about the circular connection of farming, land stewardship and food production, family, and how her and Alan are making it work on their farm - and they are making it work.

It's a commercial farm, they're dairy farmers, but it's also a high-nature farm. It's also a farm which has really been built around the needs of their family.

“It’s about the children’s experience of life and nature,” she said. Her positivity about the life of a farming family on a family farm was a reminder of why we put up with all the challenges farming faces.

Bright dawn

Thursday morning dawned bright. I took the bus to Dublin and found myself smiling as the heat of the morning sun could be felt through the window.

It was hard not to feel a sense of renewed optimism, with a touch of spring in the air at last.

I got a bit of a reality check from a phone conversation with Michael Moroney, Farm Contractors Ireland CEO, who highlighted the sheer volume of work to be caught up on.

A contractor in Wexford who has 60 acres out of 3,000 sown, one in Cork who has no lime spread, where they would have expected to get 10,000 tonnes out by now. A third has 60 acres of land spread with fertiliser, out of 1,500 acres.

Contractors now face having all their customers looking for them to come as soon as land has dried enough, if the drying weather comes next week as we expect.

The reality is that they can only do one field, one farm, one customer at a time. It’s an almost impossible situation.

The big pressure will be on drivers - they can only do so many hours a day, especially if there’s a long, sustained weather window for work to take place.

Friday came wet again, but the forecast for next week is decent. As I walked my fields, yet again reconsidering what to sow and where, I kept thinking back on the dilemma facing contractors and came up with a suggestion for farmers.

Perhaps you should offer your own time to your contractor. Even four hours a day in the afternoon might let a driver get a few hours siesta, recharge the battery.

In those parts of the world where farming is done at scale, peak periods see machinery operated round the clock, with two teams of drivers each working 12 hours a day.

If you are a drystock farmer, maybe see if you can spare a few days or nights to drive a tractor pulling a disc, spreading fertiliser or applying slurry.

To paraphrase John F Kennedy, ask not what your contractor can do for you, ask what you can do for your contractor.