Finding land to rent can be big
Arable farming in Eire is concentrating into fewer hands. But land ownership is slowing the process.
Charles Abel reports.
AT THE foot of the Wicklow Mountains 50 miles south-west of Dublin Jim McCarthy farms 445ha (1100 acres). He is typical of the new breed of Irish arable farmers.
He is vice-chairman of the Irish Tillage and Land Use Association, a former Irish Tillage Farmer of the Year and Irish representative in Ciba Agricultures European Farmers Exchange.
The land he farms around Castledermot, Co Kildare is productive loam and clay, but is spread up to 26 miles away. For half the land he must deal with numerous landowners, many rental agreements being verbal, 11-month "Conacre" agreements.
But he is fortunate in having developed several longer term deals. At the heart of his business is a 200ha (500 acre) home farm rented from his former employer.
Rents are forced up by the Irish farm retirement scheme which underpins many landowners incomes. There is also pressure to drive down fixed costs from arable growers wanting to expand and livestock producers wanting to extensify their units, explains Mr McCarthy.
Indeed it is difficult finding sufficient eligible land. Much of it, which qualified during the base years, is now back under grass.
Cropping on the farm is mainly wheat, plus some barley and oats. Cereal prices are as for the UK, plus £15/t for shipment into Dublin. "That difference allows the arable sector to survive in Ireland. We now produce 1.6m tonnes of cereals."
No oilseed rape
But with no crushing plant, there is no oilseed rape. And break crops are unpopular, since their area aid is low and the rotational benefits cant be guaranteed on short term rental agreements, stresses Mr McCarthy. The oats area has tumbled 30% since major producer Sweden entered the EU.
Mild, wet weather creates high disease and lodging pressure. "We grow an extra node here, because of the mild winter."
Two split rate applications of chlormequat and choline chloride (Cycocel) are followed by 2-chloroethylphosphonic acid + mepiquat chloride (Terpal). And disease control is a four-spray programme followed by an ear wash. Cyproconazole + prochloraz (Sportak Delta) goes on at full rate at second node (GS32). A tebuconazole (Folicur), chlorothalonil (Bravo), chlorothalonil + flutriafol (Impact Excel) combination is then used every 31 days regardless, with rates according to disease pressure.
Despite spending up to £100/ha (£40/acre) on fungicides, he feels it is worthwhile. "We get the response. With 3.5t/acre at £130/t, its worth it."
Straw is a lucrative by-product, worth up to £10/Hesston bale delivered to Northern Ireland this year. Winter barley in the swath is worth £125/ha (£50/acre) for the coming harvest. High prices are a legacy of a declining cereal area, set-aside and a burgeoning mushroom industry, he says.
So what of the future? Fixed costs are low, at £30/t, with just two men plus himself and less than 0.5hp/acre mechanisation, even ploughing twice in three years. And despite investing in new equipment, borrowings are low.
"We can produce wheat at less than £70/t, before land costs. But those are enormous, at £40/t, so were really looking at £116/t.
"East Anglian producers may want to farm at world market prices. Thats fine if you have 2500 acres. But I support 13 different people through various land agreements. A lot of people are dependent on the trickle down effect here. So should CAP reform be a social or economic policy?"