No doubt about it, the biggest talking point at the Ploughing Championships this week was the Nitrates derogation reduction and the impact it is having and will have on farming over the next number of years.
Farmers are becoming more and more aware of its impact as the understanding of the new, reduced stocking rate threshold grows. Some of the unknowns discussed here last week have been clarified to some extent by Minister McConalogue’s address to the Oireachtas since – however, many remain.
His proposal is that the majority of the country will have to adhere to the 220kg limit, with the rest maintaining the 250kg limit for at least another year. We still don’t know the boundaries, the detail or what will happen farms straddling both thresholds.
The farmer frustration at the Ploughing Championships is not about the 3,000 or 4,000 derogation farmers directly affected. It’s about the consequence of potentially moving from 220kg to 170kg in the next few years, if similar comparative methodology is applied.
In one fell swoop, it would change the type of farming we carry out on this island and practically render the last 60 years of Teagasc research and advice redundant. Farmers have no further vision or clarity on what will happen in the next two, three or four years.
I hear some people suggesting that farmers should just gladly accept the 220kg now and focus on trying to keep the 220kg stocking limit rather than continue the fight for 250kg. To those proposing this I ask them firstly, how is this possible given the methodology and timeframe used to get to 220kg this time? Secondly, what silver bullet have they in mind in a short timeframe to get the required improvement in water quality desired?
We know right now, at the time of making this decision, that Teagasc research shows if the whole country was at the 170kg stocking threshold, water quality measurements would not see the positive outcome desired.
Ultimately, this is what frustrates farmers. The vast majority want to do the right thing, they have already invested billions in managing nutrients, but if they are regulated to reduce stocking rate knowing full well that stocking rate per se is not the key driver of improving water quality, then how can they believe in the science or believe in doing the right thing?
Last week in this column, I discussed the Agricultural Catchments Programme (ACP) and discussed key findings on why stocking rate is not the right measure to impact water quality change. Some commentators dismissed the ACP work out of hand as the wrong measure and they mention the fact that it is only small scale relative to the testing carried out by the EPA.
I beg to differ.
The ACP was set up to get under the bonnet of what is happening following on from the measurement by the EPA national testing programme. It was set up to look in detail at the real practical issues of what makes nitrates and other nutrients get into waterways.
Irish farmers don’t want to be forced off the pitch to be passed out by others not doing as much for the environment
Of course I know it’s not as significant in size as the EPA sample – it wasn’t set up to compete with that dataset on size.
The relevant outcome of the ACP work in this debate is that ‘stocking rate’ is not the principal driver of water quality deterioration and there are so many other tools that are far more significant at reducing surplus nutrient run off to rivers.
I was asked this week again if stocking rate is not the answer, then what is the solution to improving water quality? In the last year, farmers have implemented numerous significant practical changes that, given time, will positively impact water quality.
Further increasing slurry storage on all farms so that farmers have more options on the timing of using that nutrient to the best possible effect would help further. Yes that’s an additional significant investment, but for me it allows family farm businesses build a vision and continue with our comparative grassland advantage.
Remember the cohort of farmers directly targeted in the derogation are already heavily regulated and are already the best operators in the business at managing nutrients.
If the Irish rugby team management handicapped its best players on the pitch, then South Africa or any other team wouldn’t be long about beating them out of the World Cup.
Irish farmers don’t want to be forced off the pitch to be passed out by others not doing as much for the environment as Irish farmers currently are. If the much talked about visit by the EU Commissioner for the Environment Virginijus Sinkevicius can bring clarity, resolution and a vision for the future of all farmers, then we have to welcome that with open arms.