Yes, this is yet another article about how fertiliser, feed and fuel prices have rocketed in recent months and what farmers, the broader industry, Government and the EU can or should do about it.

For that, I can only apologise, but, that said, it is the central issue facing farming right now.

I have to acknowledge at the outset that there need to be long-term learnings from what is happening now.

There are fundamental structural weaknesses in our food system, at national, European and global level.

They will need to be addressed, particularly in terms of the long-term economic and resource sustainability of dependency on fossil fuel-derived nitrogen to feed our grass and crops.

In the meantime, we have to get through the current moment. For the average farmer, that's a far from simple equation. How do we evaluate and respond to current need?

Good news

First, the good news. Dairy markets have responded quickly and significantly to events. It's fair to say that a producer who can't cover current costs at a base price in excess of 45c/l would have struggled to cover costs in recent years at the prices of the time.

That doesn't mean there is a bonanza out there - input cost increases will gobble up almost all the year-on-year 10c/l price increase.

But most dairy farmers regarded 2021 as a good year and if grass growth is good and prices hold, they'll be ok.

I'd say the main request now is for some kindness in the weather rather than more generosity from the marketplace.

Fundamentals good

The fact that dairy markets have responded fully and quickly suggests there is some balance between supply and demand, and between production costs and product price.

This is a healthy balance, which infers that there is economic sustainability in milk production. The structural strength of having farmer-owned processor co-operatives is also manifest.

And Glanbia is leading from the front. The 5c/l increase announced for March, the adjustments to the peak milk supply arrangements and the attempt to address the issues caused by the fixed milk price scheme suggest that its evolution from a plc/co-op joint venture back to a fully-owned co-op has allowed Glanbia to become more reactive.

While many farmers don't like the stipulations around the fixed milk price adjustment offer, it's fair to say there is a general acknowledgement that Glanbia has tried to address what is a problematic situation for a cohort of its suppliers.

Hope for tillage sector

That isn't the end of the good news. Grain markets are on fire at present.

The €200/t barrier for green barley or wheat has rarely been broken, but was breached last year. Now prices have shot past €300/t. The malting barley price indicator exceeded €400/t this week.

This is heady stuff, but a word of warning. Grain producers are still vulnerable. They have committed the significant investment of putting a crop in the ground and feeding it with incredibly expensive fertiliser.

The crop protection products to minimise the competition provided by weeds and to ward off the fungal infections that pervade in our warm(ish), damp climate are also dearer than ever before.

Sadris Pastars, Nedela Marin and Micheal Carroll harvesting cauliflower for JFS produce in Rallekaystown, Co Dublin. \ Philip Doyle

So we need to cross our fingers that the sun shines and the showers fall. A coldish, dry week is forecast and it's not a pattern of weather we want to persist into much of May.

The potential of our crops could be halved or worse if the weather comes the wrong way - we saw that in 2018. If that happens, no grain price on earth will suffice.

A 3t/ha crop of barley, as opposed to a 3t/ac crop, would spell disaster in any year. This year, it would mean wipe-out.


But that concern apart, grain growers should be ok this year. There are issues for farmers who forward sold some of their crop last autumn or earlier this year.

What seemed prudent now looks foolish in the light of the hyper-inflation we are living through.

Will Glanbia move to find solutions for its growers, as it did for its milk suppliers? It is the largest buyer of grain in the country, as it is the largest processor of milk. Of course, there are 14 dairy farmers in the boardroom.

The same applies to Boortmalt, the largest buyer of malting barley, the most significant premium grain crop. There might be some room for manoeuvre.

Forward sales are generally carried out on a back-to-back basis. The end customers for Boortmalt are the likes of Diageo and Irish distillers.

There surely has to be an acknowledgement on all sides that the suddenly changed environment needs close examination to ensure that each leg of a fairly short supply chain is supported. Or maybe all those Guinness ads are just hooey. We'll watch this space.

Bad news

Now for the bad news. The vegetable sector is on its last legs. This is incomprehensible to me.

If the supply chain of malting barley is relatively simple, the vegetable sector is a two-hand reel. Producers, either as individuals or in co-ops, supply retailers directly. That's it.

These retailers, half a dozen or so, effectively form an oligopoly. That is defined as a market where the number of companies on one side of the supply/demand equation is small enough to give each of them some market power.

And that power is being currently exerted to ignore and/or resist calls from vegetable producers for increases in current, and particularly future, contracts to recognise the utterly changed landscape.

I'll be honest, I don't understand it at all. The supermarkets are literally killing off the domestic supply of perishable products.

They are doing so at a time when consumers are becoming ever more aware of the provenance of food. By that I mean where food comes from, how it is produced and the food miles it has to travel to the supermarket shelf.


If Irish carrot, cabbage and cauliflower producers go bust, it probably means the glasshouses of Almeria in Spain will supply our fruit and vegetables.

Google them - they can be seen from outer space. If that happens, Tesco, Dunnes, Supervalu, Lidl and Aldi can hang their heads in shame.

The fact that the food producers most dependant on our domestic market are the ones who will be first to the wall is an indictment of our food systems.

It suggests the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission needs to live up to its name and get on the pitch urgently.

Because by the time the food ombudsman arrives to save the day for primary producers, there won't be any left in our fruit and vegetable sectors. The five big retailers will have ensured that our five-a-day has to be shipped or flown in. What a mess.