The ICMSA held their Annual General Meeting (AGM) last week in Limerick, and in attendance were Minister McConalogue, An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Minister Eamon Ryan.

Needless to say most farmers that spoke from the floor were frustrated. The core issues were the lack of renewable energy opportunities, the nitrates directive rule change and how farming was being demonised as the main cause of climate change.

The hotel that the three ministers spoke in last Friday was right on the border of Clare and Limerick. In county Clare, there are maybe 50 farmers that avail of the nitrates derogation and in Limerick maybe 300.

That derogation allows these farmers operate a grass-based system and stock their land block to 250kg of organic nitrogen (2.7 cows/ha).

By all accounts, at the rate farmers are getting turfed out of derogation this year, there won’t even be that many farmers left in derogation by the year end.

Now we have a scenario where a reduced national stocking rate policy and ceiling is being imposed on these 350 farmers and all the other farmers in derogation.

Family farms

These are family, grass-based farms that have signed up to adequate slurry storage, additional paperwork, and additional measures to control nutrients.

What makes this a wider national issue is that these farmers are then forced into acquiring more land to artificially reduce stocking rate on paper.

Given the fact the volume of land leased and sold is very small, this supply and demand inequity puts additional upward pressure on land price, as other land-based farm sectors are forced to compete on price.

This not only puts the dairy enterprise in a less competitive place, but all the other farming sectors also.


The most nonsensical part of this ‘one size fits all solution’ is that our Department and the EU expect to see change in water quality based on the fact that this subset of farmers has to de-stock by whatever number of cows.

The fact that 33% less artificial fertiliser has been spread in the last two years, or that there has been a raft of additional derogation rules imposed doesn’t seem to count.

Our Department and the Brussels negotiators can talk about this as an EU rule, but the reality is farming in Ireland is very different than other EU countries.

Movement of slurry from farm to farm won’t fix the problem for Ireland. It might well fix it in the Netherlands, Denmark or Germany where more of the cows are indoors all year round, but not in Ireland.

So ironically, Commissioner Sinkevicius is coming to Ireland this week to front a retrograde step in Irish farm policy.

Yet, when we spoke to the agriculture Commissioner Wojciechowski earlier this year, he held Ireland up as the example of how best to produce food.

If the visiting Commissioner makes no change to policy why is this a retrograde step? The Teagasc Director Frank O’Mara called it out last week. Ironically, the longer term scenario and outcome of this and further changes in stocking rate is how this will change what Irish farmers do.


Our modest yielding, grass-based cows will get housed for longer, get fed more proteins from across the world to push yields higher, and more energy will be used spreading nutrients mechanically. Animal welfare, the environment and farmers’ pockets all lose out.

All the clichés we heard in Limerick last week from An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Minister Ryan like – ‘farming is part of the solution’, ‘we’ll explore any possibilities’, and ‘we’ll continue to speak up for you’ are not much good when there are no winners.

If the politicians are serious and want to be part of a water quality improvement story, well then they must do something scientifically positive, not a ‘one size fits all’ solution.

Minister Ryan kept asking the ICMSA audience to tell him if he or any of his party colleagues classed farmers as villains or if he was demonising farmers?

One after another, farmers stood up and talked about the fact there is no anaerobic digestion strategy, there is no forestry planting ongoing, there is no meaningful energy export scheme for small farmers to partake in, our national energy infrastructure is inadequate and now the minister is using the smoke screen of water quality to cut stock numbers.

No farmer said Eamon Ryan was a villain, but the comments were hardly a ringing endorsement of any leader or national policy.