Lessons from Carlow and Ukraine  may help the return to tillage

The St Patrick’s Day festival activities brought us to a friend’s home in the sunny south-east and the big parade in Waterford city this year. On the way back, a history lesson was called for as we drove through the ‘sleepy’ town of Carlow.

  I always feel that Carlow is very comparable in cultural terms, size and scale to the towns of Roscommon or Boyle or Castlerea. It’s not a huge population centre, for starters. It sprawls out a bit on either side with industrial estate areas and schools and colleges, and it’s surrounded by very decent farmland where you can see all mixes of agriculture, but especially the tillage farmers in action – as they were when we drove through the area on that particular day.

  There’s nothing like a gigantic new Massey Ferguson or a David Browne to stop you in your tracks when you’re trying to make ground on the ring road around  Carlow – and it was on that busy route that the conversation in the car turned to sugar and sugar beet, of all things!

Landmark building

The front seat passenger, being a former presenter of the RTE agriculture show ‘Ear to the Ground’, was of course trying to show off his undoubted knowledge and experience of the farming game. I tried to draw the attention of my two young sons (in the back) away from their phones and tablets and onto what I perceived to be a vacant tower building in the distance with a spiral staircase on it as we drove down the Athy road and past a landmark which I believed to be the once great sugar factory.

  The truth is we were deep in the heart of a remarkable story that began on this very site in 1925 and ran for 80 years before coming to a sudden halt. Carlow was selected as the best county for the sugar factory in those days for the same geographical reason it could be today – because it is situated right bang in the middle of an area with soil ideally suited for the growing of sugar beet. On top of that, Carlow had (and still has) a good rail and waterway connection, so its produce could be conveniently transported around the country. Also, there was plenty of political support when the Sugar Manufacturing Company was created in 1926 by local businessman Edward Duggan, and seen immediately as a landmark moment in the industrialisation of the fledgling Irish State (a bit like their local Bord na Mona, one might argue). In 1933, the plant was nationalised by the newly-elected Fianna Fáil government who then created a State-owned sugar company with the Carlow plant as its headquarters.

  For decades, the sugar plant was the cornerstone of the local economy until the tragedy which was a decision by the bureaucrats in Brussels that led to the plant’s forced closure in 2005 due to the introduction of EU sugar quotas – a move that was highly controversial at the time. It was also a body blow for employment in the area. After 80 years in production, the Carlow sugar factory closed with a loss of 190 full-time jobs.

Ironic policy change

As we looked across at what is now left of the sugar factory, I couldn’t help but think about the irony of it all – the fact that a once-great industry headquarters lay idle and derelict here in the same week as our Government of 2022 had hurriedly announced that farmers will now receive €400 for every additional hectare of tillage they plant this year. This great announcement came with bells and whistles on it as part of a package worth more than €12m to support tillage farmers asking them to increase the volume of crops grown in Ireland – especially at a time when events on the world stage are making us all look over our shoulders as to where we are going to get the food on our table next year. What a very different message from 2005! Not a mention of food quotas now.

  The reality is that the crisis in Ukraine has already had a severe impact on Irish agriculture and supply chains, with hyper-inflation in the price of energy, animal feeds, fertiliser, fuel, silage and multiple other farm input prices – so this tillage scheme was designed in jig time to incentivise farmers to grow additional tillage crops like barley, oats and wheat as soon as they can this year.

  It is understood the proposed €400 a hectare hand-out may be a bit higher for certain crops, such as maize and fodder beet, as the cost of production there is deemed to be more expensive, but the experts in the Department of Agriculture and Teagasc are saying a possible 25,000 additional hectares of these crops could be grown in 2022 – which would indeed be a massive boost for our home-grown food chains.

Green shoots or beans

On top of that our very green government here also wants to introduce protein crop supports to encourage farmers to grow the likes of peas, beans and lupins with a payment of €300 a hectare suggested – and it is even mooted that ‘combi-crops’, like a cereal/protein mix, would be included in this initiative.

  I listened on the radio the other day to Donegal TD and the new Minister for green beans Charlie McConalogue justifying this big change in direction. “We are living in unprecedented times” he said, “the illegal invasion in Ukraine has put our supply chains under enormous pressure and there is a need to focus our supports on the tillage sector given the narrow window we have to plant crops”.  Top of Form

  For some peculiar reason, the longer the Minister spoke, the greater the vision appeared in my brain of ‘Tom and Barbara’ in their greenhouse in the 1970s BBC comedy ‘ The Good Life’. Actors Richard Briers and Felicity Kendal brilliantly played the lead roles of the born-again greenies who said they were “becoming totally self-sufficient” in their suburban house. It was a great comedy – seriously well written – but the ‘vision’ of their new green lifestyle was not always successful – financially or otherwise – and one has to wonder if the authorities here have put appropriate pre-planning into their own brand new initiative in this area either.

  I wonder for instance if anyone really thinks that the new grant of 400 euro a hectare will come anywhere near the cost of growing that crop as the price of fertiliser seems to have gone from around 300 euro a tonne to well over 1100 euro as we speak. When you add the price of diesel to operate that ‘Massey’ in the field and the price of the seed you have to sow, it’s hard to see what margin, if any, would be left for the tillage farmers.

  Next Sunday, April 3rd, will see the return of the Roscommon Ploughing Championships and field day at Rockfield, about 11km outside of Roscommon town on the Castlerea Road. It might be as good as any place for you to ask some of the experts there what they think of the new deal for tillage farmers. This year’s hosts will be Michael & Ann Lambert and family and there’s a collection taking place in one of the marquees to support the Ukrainian refugees facility at Donamon Castle – men and women who have come here to flee war in a country described by many as the ‘bread basket of Europe’ in its day – such has been their success at exporting food to others around Europe.

  Maybe we should try and learn from the Ukrainians on this issue? What we all need now is a long-term vision for the successful extension of the tillage sector here – something that was badly missing in Carlow back in 2005 – and one can only hope that whoever is in charge this time in Europe will not make the same mistakes all over again.