Farming (Northern Ireland)

Orders of the Day — Part I – in the House of Commons at 9:37 pm on 28th October 1985.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Lang.]

Photo of Mr Jim Nicholson Mr Jim Nicholson , Newry and Armagh 9:43 pm, 28th October 1985

I welcome this opportunity to bring before the House the serious plight that has faced Northern Ireland agriculture during the summer as a result of adverse weather conditions. This summer has certainly been the worst in living memory. Indeed, many of the most elderly among the farming community cannot remember a worse situation facing the farmers in that part of the United Kingdom.

From June to mid-October there has been no dry spell, not even for two consecutive days throughout that time. A major cause of the problem lies in the fact that there was continuous rain day and night which, on occasions, culminated in flooding in various parts of the Province. Coupled with that, the temperature of the soil and of the air was about 2 deg. C lower than might have been expected in the summer. The continuous bad conditions caused all aspects of agriculture to suffer.

I want to outline, but not exaggerate, some of the difficulties. The prolonged periods of wet weather have wreaked havoc on the cereal and potato crops. Cereal farmers responded to the calls of Ministers who came to grain trade dinners and told them that, because of the cuts in dairy quotas, they should increase grain production. Although in Europe as a whole grain was in surplus, Northern Ireland was a deficit area. Northern Ireland is a net importer of grain. Farmers were encouraged to expand cereal production, and as a consequence many of them face ruin. Grain producers are professionals in their own right and they know how to grow cereals. They are important and must be kept in business if cereal production in Northern Ireland is to have any future.

Most of the winter wheat has been lost, as is acknowledged even by the figures of the Department of Agriculture. The winter barley has also suffered seriously. There were extra spraying costs and high drying costs. After difficult harvesting conditions, there is a poor yield. Spring barley has finally been salvaged, but again, with high drying costs and low yields, with only a limited amount of straw saved. The result is poor profits for those who depend on grain growing for their livelihood. Harvesting was most difficult, protracted and expensive.

Successive Secretaries of State and Ministers of Agriculture have encouraged the growth of alternative crops. Farmers were told not to put all their eggs in one basket. They were encouraged to produce oil seed rape—disaster. They were told to grow peas—disaster. Flax production this year has been a disaster. There is a catalogue of crop failures. So much for alternative crops in Northern Ireland.

In fairness, potato growers struggled valiantly against great odds to try to harvest their crops. Ground conditions were atrocious. Some potatoes lay under 12 to 18 inches of water for a long time. Eventually some farmers got the potatoes home. But what did they find? The potatoes looked good when they were brought from the field, but within three weeks they began to rot in their boxes. Part of the problem was caused by the weather. Blight was rampant. Even continuous spraying had no effect. In some cases, before the farmers were out of the fields, the rain had started and the day's work was washed into the ground.

A problem that I found out about only a short time ago —water slade—occurs when potatoes consume so much water that they cannot absorb any more and cannot stand against germs. When potatoes are brought to the farm, they are so weakened that germs attack them and soon the potatoes are a rotting mess.

I recently visited Rathfriland in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for South Down (Mr. Powell) where I met a farmer who had been working all year to produce 250 tonnes of potatoes. They were the sole source of his livelihood. He stood on top of those potatoes and sank into them. They were a rotting mess.

Everyone has great sympathy for the farmers, but sympathy is not enough. The farmers in South Down said that £2·5 million or £3 million was available under a stockfeed scheme, and they asked why the money could not be given to those who had ended up putting their potatoes on dumps or in bogs. They got no return for the capital invested and the work put into producing those potatoes over a whole year.

We face a difficult and serious problem. I do not denigrate officials in the Department of Agriculture in Northern Ireland who have given farmers advice, but that advice has not helped. One farmer spent £30,000 on new boxes and a forklift truck to handle them. His potatoes rotted. Another farmer bought drying equipment and did everything right—even the departmental officials agreed that he did everything right—but his potatoes rotted as well.

We are speaking of farmers' livelihoods, and we must have every sympathy for them. I ask Ministers to help men who have lost their whole production of the past year.

My constituency is known as the orchard of Ireland, but the apple producers have had difficult times because of the weather. Apple scab has been a difficult problem for the apple growers. Even though they used extra spraying, they faced similar problems to those experienced by the potato growers. Before the farmers got through the orchard gate, the day's work was lost. Up to 40 per cent. of the apple crop is virtually unmarketable this year. This is a high-cost industry, and the growers face grave difficulties.

One would not expect mushrooms to have been affected by the weather, but mushroom growers require straw, the raw material for mushroom production. Growers in my constituency employ 1,000 people—the industry is an important source of employment in my constituency. Like the apple producers, they have a large marketing organisation. I implore Ministers to ensure that both those sectors receive help. Jobs are at stake and markets that have been fought for and won over many years may be lost. Consideration should be given to bringing in straw for the mushroom growers from outside Northern Ireland and the Republic.

The majority of farmers in Northern Ireland are dependent on the grass-based sector for their living. There has been much discussion about dairy farmers recently, but in a different vein. Today the problem is not quotas, but insufficient fodder to carry the dairy cows through the winter. Many dairy farmers in Northern Ireland have had their cows inside since the middle of August. As much silage has alredy been consumed as would normally have been consumed by mid or late January. I understand that by mid-February or March they will be unable to feed the animals with the silage that they have managed to salvage.

During the past two weeks better weather in Northern Ireland, has partly helped to relieve the problem. Farmers have not sat on their thumbs waiting for help. They have done their best in those two weeks to try to salvage what little they can. However, that is not enough. There is an estimated shortfall in forage of up to 40 per cent. That problem must be dealt with in the coming months.

Beef producers have also had a serious time during the past four or five months. The grass did not have the feeding value required to help cattle to thrive, and the prices offered by the plants were much lower than last year. It was very much a buyer's market. One would have thought that the period of intervention would have eased the problem. When farmers tried to sell their cattle during the short period of intervention they rang up the local plants but were told that nothing was required. They did not require anything because more than 50 per cent. of the plants in Ireland are owned by factories originating in the Republic of Ireland. They brought thousands of cattle over the border and killed them in the plants in Northern Ireland.

If intervention is to work and provide support for the farmer, the farmer must be seen to be receiving that support. An intervention period must ensure a domiciliary period for cattle coming from the Republic of Ireland. Cattle should be kept on grass in Northern Ireland for a month, six weeks or even two months before they can be slaughtered. The Government should address themselves to the problem, because during that period farmers did not receive the benefit of intervention. The benefit went to the plant and the buyers who went to the Republic of Ireland, bought the cattle, and brought them north. They, not the farmers received the profit. At least 50 per cent. of the plants did not indulge in that practice, and I congratulate them on sticking by the people who supported them through thick and thin over the years. Those plants stuck with the farmers who had referred cattle to them in the past. However, the other plants should be condemned for bringing cattle from the Republic of Ireland. No doubt it was more profitable for them.

According to Department of Agriculture figures, in the less-favoured areas only 20 per cent. of the hay was saved, whereas in lowland areas 30 per cent. was saved——.

It being Ten o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Mr. Neubert.]

Photo of Mr Jim Nicholson Mr Jim Nicholson , Newry and Armagh

I assume that there is no argument with those figures, which show how serious the fodder problem is.

Photo of Mr James Molyneaux Mr James Molyneaux , Lagan Valley

I do not doubt the accuracy of the figures quoted by my hon. Friend. However, even in the south of County Antrim, which is reckoned to be good agricultural land, many farms have no hay at all. Not even one bale has been saved.

Photo of Mr Jim Nicholson Mr Jim Nicholson , Newry and Armagh

I thank my right hon. Friend for that intervention. What he says is correct. In the county of Fermanagh, which has a higher rainfall than any other part of the United Kingdom, the farmers are used to such conditions and can say, "We have faced this before." However, this time the problem has spread throughout Northern Ireland. No area has been left untouched by it.

Many small farmers, especially in hill areas, depend completely on hay as fodder for their animals during the winter. They are in an impossible position. Many of them have no hay, and find it too expensive to purchase hay or silage. The most serious problems will arise during January, February and March next year, when no fodder will exist. Indeed, much of the silage and hay that has been saved is of such poor quality that farmers will need to augment its protein value with grain.

I have always been a keen supporter of intervention grain being brought to Northern Ireland, and I welcome the announcement to bring it there now. However, intervention grain will not solve the problem. I am worried about how that grain will he distributed, and I wish to be assured that it will reach those in the greatest need. I am worried that, at the end of the day, all that we shall have achieved will be to give the merchants a rich harvest at the expense of those who need grain. I want assurances that the grain will not go into silos in Belfast and never be seen again. I want assurance that the grain will be given to small hill farmers and to farmers most in need.

I am glad to see the new Secretary of State on the Front Bench tonight. He has shown great interest in the matter since it first came to his attention. When we visited the former Secretary of State, he told us that he would have discussions with the millers about producng a low-cost ration to be sold to farmers, but to date we have heard nothing of that. Are those negotiations continuing, or have the millers refused to co-operate?

I have spent much time talking about the difficulties of farmers, However, because Northern Ireland depends so much on agriculture, its problems affect many others. It affects the ancillary industries. For example, creamery workers are being let off work, and in other sectors of agriculture people are losing their jobs. When farmers do not have that little extra to spend, local shops suffer. Lime distributors, who last year told me that they could not manufacture and distribute lime fast enough, have not sold a ton this year, and they have no work.

The Government's initial response to the problem was extremely slow and left much to be desired. They may have hoped that the position would improve and that the problem would disappear. At the end of June many farmers told me that July would be better, and then that August and September would be better, and perhaps Ministers and officials thought the same. But the problem has not disappeared. It will not be good enough for them to say today that they will not know how bad the position is until the end of 1985. Farmers require today an early sign of what the Government propose to do to relieve the present crisis.

At present little winter grain has been planted. The Government should seriously consider an acreage payment: to cereal and potato producers to get them back in business because many of them cannot afford to replant next year. That way those people can continue to produce and to do what they do best. There should be additional payments of the hill land compensatory amounts for the current year. Early payments of suckler cow and ewe premiums should be made, and a suspension of the six months' retention rule for suckler cow payments should be invoked. That way the Minister will at least put money into the hands of those who require it most — those who must buy the dear fodder and dear meal. There will be no cheap grain or meal.

There is a serious shortage of hay in Northern Ireland. The Government should consider making a transport subsidy to bring hay by sea to Northern Ireland to help us over the present problem. Small dairy farmers who need to buy fodder also require extra aid. Hon. Members must remember that 20 per cent. of dairy farmers depend on hay, and that not all have switched to silage. The co-responsibility levy should be abolished. That would assist all dairy farmers and would not cost the Government any extra money because the legislation has outlived its useful purpose. The Government should announce immediately the extension of the former agricultural and horticultural grants scheme to enable work to be finished because farmers have been unable even to reach their land to carry out work. As many pastures have been seriously damaged and need to be renewed, a new and higher grant rate should be introduced for a short time to ensure that the pasture is renewed and extra reseeding carried out.

I know that the Government are monitoring the position effectively, and I wish them well. I hope that they will make early recommendations on those proposals.

I suggest that a subsidised intervention is required for the apple growers in my constituency for the pulping of apples. The pulped apples should be made available to livestock farmers at an attractive price.

I have suggested some ways in which the Government could assist hard-pressed farmers. I have thrown out ideas merely as suggestions and I appreciate that other approaches could be adopted. However, I feel that some of my suggestions are worthy of urgent and immediate action.

Farmers cannot look forward to the future with any confidence, especially this coming winter. The time for talking has passed and it is now time for positive action. The Government have dragged their feet long enough. Farmers are proud and hard-working people. They do not want handouts, the dole or supplementary benefit. They want to work for a proper return on their input. I implore the Government to give them the encouragement that they require if they are to continue in business.

Photo of Mr Enoch Powell Mr Enoch Powell , South Down 10:11 pm, 28th October 1985

It is an occasion resonant with historical echoes when hon. Members from Northern Ireland come to tell the Government and the House about the potatoes that have rotted in the clamps. Now in 1985, unlike 1845, we have no difficulties in persuading Ministers of reality and the seriousness of what we are telling them. It is not usual for Adjournment debates to be attended by the Minister of State and the Secretary of State. The right hon. Gentleman's presence will be marked and appreciated as a sign of his personal interest in the circumstances that have been described so vividly by my hon. Friend and neighbour the Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Nicholson).

I shall take only a short time to underline one item in the long a la carte menu which my hon. Friend the Member for Newry and Armagh displayed and from which Ministers will have to select a policy that is consistent with their other obligations and with more general considerations, but whereby they may be seen to be. in the words of my hon. Friend, bringing help now to where it is needed most.

My hon. Friend referred to intervention grain. Despite what has happened in Northern Ireland and some other places, opinion seems to be agreed that the coming year will be an even more bumper year for intervention. Hitherto, the economics of utilising storage in Northern Ireland for intervention grain have not been regarded by the Department of Agriculture as favourable. Even in the coming year there may be a balance which tips slightly on the calculations against utilisation of storage in Northern Ireland. Nevertheless, the utilisation of Northern Ireland storage could be at least one method whereby assistance could be given within the framework of existing arrangements to those farmers in Northern Ireland who are most in need of it. We shall be faced with massive intervention in the coming months. Let us use what is an evil offspin of the common agricultural policy in a manner that is helpful to one part of the United Kingdom.

Photo of Mr Hector Monro Mr Hector Monro , Dumfries 10:14 pm, 28th October 1985

I join the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Nicholson) and the right hon. Member for South Down (Mr. Powell) in their plea for assistance for agriculture in Northern Ireland. I add my plea for Scotland. Every inch of rain that fell in Northern Ireland fell with added ferocity in Scotland. If the atrocious conditions needed any elaboration, I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale (Mr. Lang) would give it. July, August and September were the worse months for agriculture generally that anyone in the north can remember. This has resulted in shorter supplies of hay which is of poor quality and a poor harvest of grain which is of low quality and quantity. The same goes for all other classifications of fodder.

There is sometimes no fodder in the less-favoured hill areas. That is why it is important that we should know as soon as possible the form of Government assistance that will be made available. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has said that assistance will be forthcoming, but the sooner we know what it is the better. It may come through the hill livestock compensatory amounts, the suckler cow grant system and the ewe premium. I appreciate that that does not help the dairy farmer who is in dire straits, with poor quality silage in small quantities. We may have to consider a form of headage payment for dairy cattle and an extension of the co-responsibility levy.

Every section has been hard hit, including horticulture. The only crop that seems to have done well is turnips. We must not underestimate the damage that has been done to grassland and undersown crops. The difficulty of operating combine harvesters and balers in the soft ground have serious long-term implications. I assure my hon. Friend the Minister that the conditions are as serious as hon. Members have said. I know that he has seen for himself what happened in Northern Ireland. These conditions have been duplicated in Scotland and northern England. I hope that my hon. Friend has some good news. The sooner we can plan ahead for the difficult winter, the better.

Photo of Dr Rhodes Boyson Dr Rhodes Boyson , Brent North 10:17 pm, 28th October 1985

The hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Nicholson) has put on record the serious consequences for farming in Northern Ireland of the terrible weather during the summer months. My hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro) referred to Scotland. I have been in the constituency of the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh and can bear out what was said by the right hon. Member for South Down (Mr. Powell). Fields of hay were not gathered in. I have seen farms on my way to Newcastle and there is no doubt that this year there has been widespread destruction of the hay crop. Other areas in Northern Ireland have been similarly hard hit.

Farming in Northern Ireland is difficult enough in normal circumstances with high rainfall and a short growing season, but the continuous and exceptionally wet, dull and unsettled weather this year has hit farming extremely hard. The longer-term implications have not yet been fully evaluated, but the repercussions for many sectors of production will be serious throughout the coming winter and into 1986. I have no magic formula to solve this problem. During the past few months the weather has improved. As the old song says, spring is a little late this year. Summer this year came a little late so it has not been warm enough to dry out the ground.

I shall add to the facts given by the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh and put the situation into clear perspective by telling the House that the summer of 1985 in Northern Ireland was the wettest for 25 years and in some areas of the Province the wettest for a century. There was measurable rain practically every day from mid-June to late September. I was in the area at that time and I know that it was perhaps the wettest 40 days for a long time. Rain fell almost every day. Rainfall during July was 27 per cent. to 70 per cent. above average, during August 63 per cent. to 169 per cent. above average, and during September 21 per cent. to 117 per cent. above average. During three separate periods in September, rainfall figures were so high that we would normally expect them to occur only once in 600 years. Speaking almost in competition, my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries said that the rain fell harder in Scotland. It certainly fell harder than some of us saw in Northern Ireland. There were numerous violent thunderstorms, with substantial flooding in many areas, and no sustained dry spells.

In August I went to a farm not far from Belfast where one had to be wearing gumboots before walking on what was normally a hayfield. The strongest wind and the warmest climate were the only things that could have dried out the field before the autumn cold set in. Sunshine was around 25 per cent. below average for most of the summer and average temperatures were one degree below normal in July and September and two degrees below normal in August. I recognise that the extreme bad weather also happened in Scotland, as we have heard tonight. Bad weather also occurred in parts of Wales and northern England, in my own area of the Pennines. Rainfall in central and west Scotland was generally two to two and a half times the normal. Sunshine was 25 per cent. less than average over most of Scotland and temperatures were generally below average. Northern England and the Pennines suffered similar weather to that experienced in Scotland—twice the usual amount of rain, 25 per cent. less than average sunshine and temperatures around one to two degrees lower than average.

It has to be borne in mind that there is one particular issue that we would be remiss to forget in respect of Northern Ireland. Agriculture represents a much more significant part of the economy in Northern Ireland than for the United Kingdom as a whole, so the impact of the adverse weather and the relative scale of losses and disadvantage are bound to be greater than elsewhere. The extreme livestock orientation of farming in Northern Ireland also leaves the industry more vulnerable to abnormal weather or other major influences on production.

As was said by the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh, the hardest hit sector is undoubtedly cattle production because of the losses of hay and silage, particularly on the small farms in the less-favoured areas which account for most of the cattle produced in Northern Ireland. The Department of Agriculture estimates that fodder production will be some 700,000 tonnes of hay equivalent below requirement, which in a normal year is 0·5 million tonnes of hay plus 5·8 million tonnes of silage. To compensate for that would require an extra 300 to 400,000 tonnes of compound feed. In that connection, I commend the initiative taken by the industry whereby the Ulster Farmers Union and certain agricultural co-operatives are trying to arrange a consignment of hay from Canada.

With regard to arable crops, the bulk of the winter wheat and a considerable proportion of winter barley, peas and flax have been lost. It was a great tragedy about flax. One thousand acres were put down to flax this year and 500 acres were put down the previous year. The whole question is linked to the revival of the linen industry in Northern Ireland. There is a shortage of flax in the world, and one cannot have a linen industry without the raw material. In Europe there is talk of butter mountains and meat mountains. We did not have a flax mountain in Northern Ireland because we had the worst possible weather at that time.

The moisture content of all grain is high. Northern Ireland depends very much on imported cereals and some farmers have been attempting to expand arable cropping to diversify out of milk because of milk quota problems, so that this year's weather has been an unfortunate setback, following the two good cereal harvests in 1983 and 1984 There are reduced yields and higher rates of disease in potato production and much of that has rotted underground or rotted when collected.

Harvesting is well under way at present, although 10 per cent. of the crop may not be worth lifting. It is expected that the inelastic demand for potatoes will mean that reduced supplies of ware potatoes are likely to be compensated by higher prices later in the year. The impact of disease losses during storage cannot yet be assessed. There may be losses in certain varieties of early seed potatoes. That again is unfortunate because Northern Ireland has a valuable export trade in seed potatoes and prices are determined by world markets rather than the quantity of local supply. The cutback will not be compensated by higher prices for what has been harvested.

The hon. Member for Newry and Armagh also referred to the small apple crop, which is probably unsaleable in many places. There is also a shortage of the straw that is required for mushrooms.

We cannot say exactly what the position is, but my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, who is with us this evening, and my noble Friend in the other place, who takes responsibility for agriculture, share the concern about the enormous difficulties affecting farmers. Along with other Agriculture Ministers, they will be taking measures to alleviate the losses and disadvantages. The Government cannot, of course, be expected to compensate farmers for what must be recognised as the ups and downs of farming and the fact that every year the size of the crop is different. Problems are normally created by the weather from year to year. However, we recognise that the scale of the problems that have hit Northern Ireland this year is such that it threatens the fabric of this most important and essential industry. The matter is being considered. Everything that has been said in the debate will be checked by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and my noble Friend.

Last week there was a debate on the matter in the Northern Ireland Assembly, in which the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh spoke. He spoke for 27 minutes tonight and 17 minutes last week. I listed 11 matters that we shall have to examine. The hon. Gentleman expanded on eight tonight.

The position of growers who have suffered heavy crop losses is being considered. Quantitative assessment of abnormal losses by individuals is particularly difficult. Normal market forces should in some sectors compensate for shortages in supply. Certain sectors benefited from exceptionally good harvests in 1983 and 1984. Much work must be done to justify the use of public funds to compensate fairly farmers who have been careful in what they have built up over the years compared to others who have not preserved crops as they were asked to by the Department some years ago.

The hon. Member for Newry and Armagh referred to intervention grain. A transfer to Northern Ireland of 40,000 tonnes of wheat from intervention stores for use as animal feed is proposed. The grain is being made available at 25 per cent. discount and will be transported to Northern Ireland at EC expense. The EC will insist that that grain goes to the people who require it. I am not putting one part of the community against the other. The hon. Gentleman referred to millers in his speech last week. Our Department in Northern Ireland will insist that the grain goes to the people who need it. The EC will also make sure that that happens. I give the hon. Gentleman an assurance about that.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned fat cattle coming from the Irish Republic. He said that 50 per cent. of meat plants in the north are Republican-owned. I appreciate the points that he makes, which farmers in his area must have raised with him. However, the EC regulations make it clear that there must be a free trade in live animals and beef. Market forces thus apply, sometimes to the advantage, sometimes to the disadvantage, of Northern Ireland. Imports of fat cattle from the Republic during the first nine months of this year were 71,000 compared with 58,500 during the same period in 1984. Therefore, the increase is by no means excessive.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have listened carefully to what has been said about Northern Ireland, as well as about Scotland. A careful debate took place in the Assembly, which was followed by Ministers with responsibility for agriculture in Northern Ireland and the rest of us who take an intense interest in agriculture. I reassure the hon. Member for Newry and Annagh, the right hon. Member for South Down and my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries that there will be full recognition of all that has been said. In the Department we shall consider the matter to see what can be done, knowing that these are exceptional circumstances and that, whatever happens, we must maintain the agriculture industry in Northern Ireland.

The Question having been proposed at Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Ten o'clock.