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Declan O’Brien: Up to their knees in it: farmers feel they are ploughing a lonely furrow

IT is said that spud farmers operate on a three-year cycle; a good year is invariably followed by a mediocre one and then by an annus horribilis, when prices collapse or the harvest is a disaster.

2012 could well go down as the National Ploughing Championship's year of misery.

After three great shows in Athy, the move to the latest site outside New Ross has been dogged by terrible weather, smaller than expected crowds and severe traffic problems.

Although conditions on the Heathpark site improved yesterday evening, some of the fields designated as car parks still bore an uncanny resemblance to the ploughing plots at the other end of the 700-acre site.

As tractors towed cars and jeeps through the mud, the smell of clutches burning filled the evening air as vehicles slipped and slid across the mucky surface.

Ironically, the fortunes of the ploughing championships in many ways mirror those of agriculture.

After two great years in which incomes increased steadily, the last six months have highlighted once again the volatility of farm incomes and the sector's almost total exposure to the vagaries of the weather.

All the talk of farming being the bright light of the domestic economy rang increasingly hollow this summer and autumn, as farmers struggled to complete the cereal harvest or to save winter fodder for livestock.

The main culprit in farming's fall from grace has been the weather. Rainfall levels this summer hit record levels across much of the country, forcing the early housing of dairy and beef herds and turning the hay and silage harvest into a lottery.

These difficulties have been compounded by a sharp increase in feed costs due to a severe drought in the American Midwest that decimated corn crops and drove animal feed costs through the roof.

The Irish Farmers Association (IFA) has estimated that the total cost of poor fodder quality and stocks, and higher feed prices, could be in the order of €400m.

While it is difficult to independently verify this figure, there is little doubt that livestock farmer incomes will take a hammering this year.

There has been little joy among grain growers either. The poor weather hit yields and grain quality and left many farmers struggling to break even on their crops.

The difficulties of 2012 have sapped farmers' confidence and produced a far more sombre and downbeat atmosphere at the New Ross ploughing. The problems experienced this year have also called into question the growth targets set out for the sector in the Food Harvest 2020 plan.

THIS aims to drive expansion in dairy by 50pc in value terms by the end of the decade and by 40pc in beef exports.

However, farmers are questioning whether targets of this order can be realised, given that the farmers producing the basic ingredient are struggling to make a profit.

Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney has defended the targets and insisted that the farming and food sector can deliver 25,000 additional jobs in the lifetime of the plan.

However, Eddie Punch of the Irish Cattle and Sheep Breeders' Association said the decision to increase the original output targets for beef from 20pc to 40pc was "symptomatic of a kind of irrational exuberance".

Meanwhile, the Irish Creamery and Milk Suppliers Association said the plan could be renamed 'Food Fantasy 2020' unless Mr Coveney addressed the issue of price volatility in the dairy sector.

The IFA is also to express its dissatisfaction with falling farm incomes with a planned day of action on Tuesday, October 9.

It all spells trouble for Mr Coveney in the months ahead. After a fairytale start to his tenure in the farming portfolio, the Cork minister's halo has slipped recently.

His decision to cut €30m in payments under the Disadvantaged Area Scheme in last year's Budget gave rise to accusations that he was more worried about the interests of large commercial farmers in the south and east of the country than in those of smaller farmers in the West.

With difficult CAP reform negotiations scheduled and further cuts in farm spending expected in the Budget, the mood of farmers is unlikely to improve in the short term.

Irish Independent