Minister of State admits Department was slow to move on fodder crisis
Edwin McGreal and Anton McNulty
The Department of Agriculture were slow to move on the current fodder crisis, a government minister of state has admitted.
Minister of State with responsibility for Local Government John Paul Phelan was speaking in Castlebar yesterday (Monday). The fodder issue was raised as he addressed a council meeting on local government reforms.
“I think the Department were a bit slow in responding if I’m being honest,” Minister Phelan told councillors at the monthly meeting of Mayo County Council.
Minister for Agriculture Michael Creed has been heavily criticised by farmers groups’ for his response to the crisis. The Mayo IFA chairman, Martin Gilvarry, said he was very disappointed that the Minister did not heed their warnings when they met him in November.
“In the west and northwest we have had long periods of rain since last August. We sat down with the Minister in November, and we explained to him that if we had a bad spring there will be difficulties,” Gilvarry told The Mayo News.
“What annoys us greatly is we explained the situation but he did not seem to get it. The situation is very serious and the Minister has not impressed us in a crisis. We as a farming group advised him, he did not take that advise on board and we feel he has been badly advised.”
Mr Gilvarry said the farming sector has been hit with a ‘double whammy’ of poor weather and the lack of growth preventing animals from going outside and the spread of slurry. He said the crisis will continue until the weather improves for a sustained period.
Meal vouchers ‘abused’
Earlier in the year, farmers in the south and east donated fodder to colleagues in the west and northwest, but they now find themselves facing a similar crisis. While welcoming the importation of fodder from the UK in the last week, Mr Gilvarry said the Minister must immediately introduce a livestock meal voucher programme, as they had previously advised him.
“What we wanted at the time [November] was for a meal voucher to be introduced which would stretch the fodder situation. If the Minister for Agriculture had acted, it would have alleviated some of the pain we are now experiencing, and we are calling on him to bring in meal vouchers now.”
Addressing this issue of a meal voucher scheme, Minister of State Phelan said that when there was a similar crisis in 2013, the scheme was ‘abused left, right and centre’ and that this was the reason for it not being rolled out.
“If the Department are giving out taxpayers’ money, they are entitled to know it’s going where it is needed. I know there are people who are in great need, but that’s not to say there aren’t people who won’t take advantage either,” he said.
‘They can’t take it anymore’
Responding, Gilvarry said that the IFA had proposed that Teagasc or other groups would oversee the meal-voucher scheme to ensure that only farmers in real difficulty availed of it.
“Farmers are not crying the poor mouth … this [crisis] has not been of anyone’s making. This was an act of God. This is affecting all farmers, dairy, beef and sheep, anyone with animals to feed. This is now a national crisis.
“Farmers have been putting their hands in their pocket to ensure they don’t see any starvation on their farms but they are running out of cash. The costs involved are unreal. It has been going on since last August and they can’t take it anymore,” he warned.
It was Fianna Fáil councillor Damien Ryan who raised the fodder crisis issue at yesterday’s meeting, proposing a suspension of standing orders in order to allow a discussion on the worsening situation on farms.
“The last eight months in agriculture have probably been more difficult than any other time any other farmer has had to endure,” said Cllr Ryan.
Independent councillor Michael Holmes said in all his years farming, he had never seen a fodder crisis like this.
“It is weather related, and we cannot blame the Minister for the weather but I can blame him for the delay in taking action.
“As well as that I met a woman yesterday who just received her final payment for 2016 and still has received no payment for 2017. How come the farming community have to wait 18 months for payment?
“We have a fodder crisis, a major crisis and a bigger one coming when the farmers have to pay over the odds for emergency supplies, yet the minister is holding onto the money. I’m not asking for money that they are not entitled to, but these applications are in over 12 months,” said Cllr Holmes.
Cllr Patsy O’Brien (FG) said he saw for himself the extent of the problem on Sunday.
“I visited a farm yesterday where the people had to let cattle out a week ago, and to be honest the land was nothing short of a paddy field,” he said.
Minister Phelan said he would relay to the department the concerns of councillors about farmers not getting farm payments in time.