Farm Ireland

Monday 21 January 2019

Why our long, hot summer could lead to empty supermarket shelves in the autumn

Empty supermarket shelves
Empty supermarket shelves

Richard Hackett

Warren Buffet said, "Only when the tide goes out do you discover who has been swimming naked".

As an analogy for disappearing water bodies, this is particularly apt given the current dry spell which is revealing all kinds of weaknesses in Irish agriculture. We can blame the weather for our woes, but farmers whingeing about the weather is a little tiresome.

What we haven't done is encourage variety and stability into the Irish agricultural structure. Over the last 30 years, we have done exactly the opposite, forcing farmers to specialise, forcing regions to specialise, eliminating resource reserves, stacking the odds against survival in times of trouble.

The decimation of tillage is a case in point. The last two seasons have seen plenty of trouble for tillage growers outside of the eastern seaboard. The poor weather and lack of support has resulted in many growers giving up tillage.

Fast-forward to this year, when it's the eastern seaboard that looks likely to be the area suffering, this time from drought.

Those lost acres of tillage along the western seaboard where rainfall levels have been better would be extremely useful now this year. But these acres are gone. By concentrating tillage into specific regions, poor weather events have much more pronounced effects than they would have if sectors were more spatially located. The potato and vegetable industries are other examples.

These sectors have been allowed to practically disappear in a haze of indifference as the intermediaries and supermarkets here have become addicted to imports from the UK and mainland Europe.

Now that most of Europe is also suffering from drought and late plantings, not to mention the word 'Brexit', empty supermarket shelves could be a reality in the autumn as intermediaries suddenly have to work a lot harder to get supply.

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The areas of potatoes and vegetables still being planted are focused around north Dublin and east Meath - parts of the country that have everything a grower should want bar a decent river or canal system to irrigate parched crops.

The crops are dying in the drills for want of water, yet within 30 miles there are huge water bodies, not doing very much.

We may have to dig up a few Roman engineers to see if they could solve that conundrum. It might be easier to encourage production nearer the water bodies.

The last thing this industry wants is new payments or new schemes to counteract specialisation.

However, there are plenty of opportunities to intervene to promote sectoral diversity without handing out payments.

We could promote native grain use over imported feeds; straw bedding over concrete and steel tanks; promotion of Irish potatoes for seed, for peeling, for chips; stronger labelling laws.

Sectoral diversity would benefit livestock businesses as well.

During time of low fodder for example, if fewer animals are in an area, there is less intense pressure to provide feed during crises. If any available extra feed could be distributed to help, the crisis would become less acute.

As an aside, it is interesting that most of the attention on the reduction of the cereal area is on lack of straw.

There is very little discussion about the reduction in barley or wheat grain that's used for animal feed.

Apparently we can continue to buy in God knows what from God knows where for next to nothing, and continue to fly the green flag for our milk and beef.

The main bone of contention is how much the livestock man is being forced to pay to get straw from the 'greedy' tillage man.

There is a lot of hyperbole around the price of straw. Straw will be scarce this year, reduced acres, likely lower yields from spring barley and diminished stores to be replenished. Prices will increase, which is the way of the market, and will be welcomed by many growers. But if they increase beyond a certain point, suddenly other options become viable.

Good customers are there for the good days and the bad days; so are good suppliers.

Richard Hackett is an agronomist based in north Co Dublin and is a member of the ITCA and ACA.

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