The hunger for information around fertiliser prices, markets and trends was apparent from the huge attendance for Wexford IFA’s online meeting on the subject on Monday night last.
Despite a power failure that left large swaths of the south of the county without power, around 300 people tuned in. What they heard offered little hope of respite on prices, but offered coping strategies that require a reasonable soil nutrient status to start with.
Liam McHale, the IFA’s Brussels director, opened, and gave the broader political context to the current market.
He was very careful in his language when addressing the IFA’s long-running campaign to overturn the €70/t tariff that is levied on fertiliser in the EU.
Just as calling someone a liar is more frowned upon in the Dáil or the House of Commons than telling the most blatant porky pies, it seems the European Commission is far more sensitive to suggestions of the existence of cartels than it is worried about actual cartels operating. McHale made clear that the tariff, seemingly in place to protect fertiliser companies, has little justification. The companies are perfectly able to pass all price increases, and the levy, back onto the retail price farmers pay to their merchants. Thus have prices exploded over the last 12 months, with nitrogen almost tripling in price.
No safety net
Francie Gorman, the IFA regional chair for South Leinster, said that farmers like him “might have been able to cope with an escalation of prices like this back in 2004, but successive cuts in direct payments to the most productive farmers have left them with no buffer”.
Wexford IFA grain chair John Murphy ran through typical fertiliser prices in the area. He said that if current grain prices held or rose, tillage farmers might get through the year, “provided there is a good harvest. However, if we have a repeat of the drought in 2019, where yields ran from 1.5-2t/acre, it won’t matter what price grain is, farmers will be wiped out.”
A pair of Teagasc advisers shared a wealth of information as to how farmers can minimise their exposure by reducing their fertiliser bill while maintaining a decent level of productivity.
John Pettit spoke about tillage crops, while James Doran talked to grassland farmers. Both were mines of practical information.
They outlined the steps farmers should take to pare back fertiliser usage in 2022 while minimising the impact on crop performance.
It became obvious that work done in previous years to bring up soil fertility and to free up nutrient availability will pay off handsomely this year.
Sympathy has to go to those farmers, mostly tillage farmers, predominantly using conacre. They are naturally slower to adopt long-term strategies to improve soil performance when they are uncertain as to whether they’ll be in any given field from year to year.
One of the side effects of dairy expansion has been a voracious appetite for land for dairying all across the tillage production regions.
Any tillage who farmer raises an eyebrow much less an objection as to conacre prices price increases is likely to be turned out.
Tillage farmers once were kings of the castle in terms of the ability to pay for land on a year-to-year basis but now they have been completely superseded by dairy farmers.
Tide going out for very high input farmers?
But there is another truth. Fifteen years ago, cutting-edge tillage farmers were often high-input high-output, using very high levels of granular fertiliser also going the extra mile in terms of chemical control of weeds and fungal diseases and pests.
Farmers still operating the same system are likely to be in trouble this year. Many have adapted, with stronger rotations, cover crops, straw incorporation or bringing in slurry, dung chicken litter, mushroom compost or some form of feed for the soil.
Tillage farmers who have ignored any such advances may resemble Jose Mourinho, the best football manager 15 years ago, now wondering where it all went wrong.
The sun has long since set on his primacy and it may be that the high fertiliser prices of 2022 will do the same to those tillage farmers who were among the strongest farmers in 2005.
Little pressure applied on Martin and McConalogue
The IFA AGM was my second meeting of the week. A live meeting in the spectacular setting of the Mansion House's Round Room on Thursday, it was a strange affair in some ways.
Perhaps it’s that after almost two years of Zoom and Teams meetings, people have forgotten how to robustly challenge a minister.
But it couldn’t be that, the CAP mart meetings last autumn saw plenty of fireworks.
Whatever the reason, there was none of the sound and fury of the IFA’s CAP campaign. The tone of the AGM was low key, almost subdued.
The presence of the Taoiseach in particular was rightly acknowledged. No other prime minister across the EU would attend a farmer association meeting.
And it’s not that no strong points were made.
Tim Cullinan’s speech was well considered, focusing on the need to ensure we don’t create a food emergency in our attempt to respond to the climate emergency.
In that context, the minimum target of a 22% reduction in carbon emissions that farming has been handed would have to be the maximum ask of the sector through the current decade.
However, the message Micheál Martin gave to farmers was starker than the message they gave to him.
The Cork TD, whose constituency encompasses some of the finest farmland in the country, said he was speaking as a friend of Irish farming, as someone who had supported farming all his life.
In no uncertain terms, and in the firmest of tones, he told the meeting them that we are at a crossroads and farmers had a choice to make.
That choice was effectively to either get on the bus or be left behind. Being on the bus might allow some influence as to its direction; listening to other counsel and resisting the inevitable would be unwise.
That sounded like code for the landing zone for farming’s carbon reduction being somewhere above 22%.
How close to the upper 30% farming might be asked to go was never made clear. The sense is that farmers don’t want to ask that question, they don’t want to hear the answer.
Speaking to farmers afterwards, it seemed to me that different farmers had picked up from the Taoiseach’s comments that their own sector is being targeted.
I listened to dairy farmers tell me that the message they took was that further dairy expansion would be curbed one way or another.
They were apprehensive about the dairy taskforce that was due to be announced the following day, believing it may be the vehicle which will deliver the restrictions they fear. Meanwhile, drystock farmers bruised by the CAP cuts which have come their way, and the aborted proposal to link a future suckler scheme to the static herds, are convinced that they are the sector on the chopping block.
With thousands of farmers facing BEAM repayments to the State, it’s understandable that cattle farmers feel that any restrictions in the national herd will either target them directly or more subtly by leaving this economically vulnerable sector to wither on the vine through lack of future supports.
Minister for Agriculture Charlie McConalogue was at pains in his presentation to reassure farmers of his absolute commitment to maintaining farm output and productivity, but it was clear afterwards that what he is saying and what farmers are hearing are not the same.
Behind the civility and decorum of the formal occasion we were at, there is a lack of trust. Undoubtedly the filter of out-of-control input prices is colouring the message in transit.
Farming is indeed at a crossroads, but a crossroads that is complicated by a level-crossing with a runaway train of high costs hurtling towards it.
It could get ugly this year.