Wednesday, 1 October 1997
Dáil Éireann Debate
Mr. Deasy: The problem faced by apple growers is due to a severe frost on the nights of 19 and 20 April last. Unfortunately for the apple growers the spring was mild and the apple trees blossomed three weeks sooner than normal. The April frost was severe with temperatures as low  as minus eight degrees centigrade recorded. It resulted in a large proportion of the apple crop being wiped out. There are a limited number of commercial growers in the counties primarily affected, which are south Kilkenny, Waterford and south Tipperary. They have suffered huge losses and some of them will not be able to continue in business. The Minister should provide some form of aid, either EU aid, national aid or both if possible. It is a very serious situation. There are not many commercial apple growers left in this country and if they are not helped we will have to import more and more apples. The present situation is bad enough, but it will be very sad if we lose the commercial growers because of the damage inflicted on those two nights.
The frost on those nights also affected growers in Britain, Belgium, Holland, Germany, France and Italy. Huge compensation is being paid to growers in France and the other countries will probably also pay compensation. It is imperative Irish growers get some assistance. The recent trend has been for farmers and producers to plough up borders and to put in grain or cattle. That trend must stop because we cannot depend on imported apples.
Catastrophic losses have also been suffered by cereal growers this year, specifically in Wexford, Waterford, Cork, south Kilkenny and south Tipperary. The cause of that problem was 14 to 15 inches of rainfall in those counties during August, when one would expect the weather to be dry and sunny for the harvest to be saved. However, we had 14 to 15 inches of rain, which is about half the annual rainfall in some years. Most cereal growers in those areas have suffered huge losses and many have not covered their expenses. Unless they receive significant aid, some will not be able to go back into business. That is a serious situation, and aid must be provided for them.
The price of grain has been as low as £72 a ton this year, which is a reduction from £95 to £100 a ton. With the huge moisture content in the saved grain, some farmers got as little as £35 to £36 a ton. That is commercial suicide. Much of the grain had sprouted, particularly moulting barley, and could only be used as feedstuff.
The Government must assist the people affected. Teagasc have been asked to carry out a survey with officials of the Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry. They should know the problems of individual farmers. I know the Minister met the banks and low interest, long-term loans would be a big help to the people affected. It would also help if not less than 90 per cent of area aid could be paid to farmers by mid-October and the balance by the end of that month. Government funds should also be matched by EU funds.
The Minister of State should bear my points in mind. The apple growers are more peripheral than the grain producers but we cannot drive farmers out of either area. There are few farming opportunities with milk restrictions and beef  restrictions because of BSE. The Minister of State should take a sympathetic view.
Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture and Food (Mr. Davern): I thank Deputy Deasy for raising this important matter. This time last year we were looking back on an extremely good harvest with high yields, excellent quality and low moisture levels. Very good weather conditions in early September ensured that harvesting was completed successfully and national cereal production exceeded 2 million tonnes for the first time since CAP reform in 1992. Yields generally were at new record levels and moisture content was low. Unfortunately, weather conditions this year were not as favourable as in previous years and a disastrous spell of bad weather during August created major difficulties. This weather could not have come at a worse time as the harvest in most areas was well under way and it was unfortunate that our main cereal producing areas in the south and south-east were worst affected by the exceptionally wet weather.
The Minister Deputy Walsh travelled to Wexford, Waterford and Cork in early September to view the difficulties at first hand and it was quite apparent at that time that some growers could not even go onto the land to harvest and in some cases a significant percentage of the crop was unharvestable. It was clear the worst hit areas had problems with lodging and sprouting and disease was also evident. I visited a number of the affected areas in Tipperary, Waterford and South Kilkenny.
The Minister met representatives of the merchants and the lending institutions. He also had discussions with the farm representatives. In his talks with the lending institutions he stressed the need for a pragmatic and sympathetic approach by the banks, towards growers who might face financial difficulties as a result of the poor harvest. I am pleased the reaction from the banks was very positive and the Minister was assured they would take a long-term understanding view of growers' financial problems. The Minister's discussions with the grain merchants also had a positive result and they offered full co-operation with growers in trying to minimise the loss from the harvest. They also agreed to provide extended credit facilities.
While the weather generally was not great throughout the country it appears that a 30 mile band across the south and south-east bore the brunt of the bad weather and this was the area which suffered the most crop damage. Luckily we got some better weather during the month of September which helped to salvage the bad situation to some extent and harvesting is now practically over apart from in some areas, particularly in the south-east, where a small amount remains to be harvested. It now seems that while quality has certainly been badly affected with very little milling wheat assembled, yields have kept up remarkably well and the production of some l.9 million  tonnes forecast prior to the bad weather will still be achieved.
Early information indicates that spring wheat and spring barley are the two cereal crops most affected and that the winter crops were less damaged. However, this was just a preliminary assessment and we felt we needed to get more precise information on the crop damage. Accordingly, as Deputy Deasy pointed out, Teagasc was asked to undertake a survey of individual farms which have been most severely affected to determine the extent of the damage caused. This work is now nearly completed and we hope to have an early report on it. We will then be in a position to make an overall assessment which will give a more precise overview of crop damage.
It is not only cereal crops which have been affected by the bad weather but other horticultural crops including apples and strawberries which suffered frost damage in May. Soft fruit, potatoes and other vegetables will also have suffered some damage. We are also assessing the situation in the horticultural sector and when this is done we will consider what will be the most appropriate line of action to take.
In a year such as this, I am acutely conscious of the importance of area aid payments to cereal producers. Under EU regulations, payment of these aids cannot commence until 16 October. The Deputy can take it, we will ensure that payments will be made as quickly as possible after that date. We hope 9O per cent of all payments will be processed and issued within the week. This should alleviate the cash-flow situation particularly in the worst affected areas of the south and south-east where more than 30 per cent of all the arable payments — which in the current year will amount to more than £90 million — will be paid. It is worth noting these payments are made irrespective of yields or quality and will provide some minimum guaranteed return for all producers.
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