Seanad Éireann - Volume 34 - 17 December, 1947
Adjournment Debate—Export of seed Potatoes.
An Leas-Chathaoirleach An Leas-Chathaoirleach
An Leas-Chathaoirleach: As announced at the opening of business to-day, we have received notice from Senator Baxter that on the motion for the adjournment of the House to-night he proposes asking the Minister for Agriculture if he will amplify the paragraph in the report of the result of the discussions between the representatives of the British and Irish Governments  in regard to the export of seed potatoes to Britain.
Also, if he will state what commitments, if any, we have entered into in regard to the export of a given quantity or if the price offered is to be the sole determining factor in regulating the volume of exports; and, further, if he will state the steps he has taken to cause an examination to be made of our own seed requirements before any exports are permitted.
Mr. Baxter Mr. Baxter
Mr. Baxter: I do not intend to say very much by way of opening remarks about this matter. This is actually the third occasion on which I have endeavoured to raise this question which I am raising for the purpose of getting information. I presume the Minister is not without information about conditions throughout the country generally. I have had an opportunity of studying, perhaps in a rather circumscribed way, these conditions in my own county and they are sufficiently serious—particularly in regard to seed potatoes—to require explanation in view of the recent trade discussions between our Ministers and the British Government.
In column 1829 of the Official Report of Dáil Eireann for the 13th November, 1947, the paragraph headed “Seed Potatoes” reads:
“Seed Potatoes. The Ministry of Food will pay the following prices per ton, f.o.b., for seed potatoes of the 1947 crop:—
These prices represent an increase of 33s. 0d. per ton compared with those paid last season.”
I want the Minister to amplify that statement and to let us know how much it means. I want to know what commitments, if any, we have entered into in regard to the export of a given quantity. I want to know if the price offered is to be the sole determining factor in regulating the volume of exports, and I want to know if the Minister will state what steps he has taken to cause an examination to be made  of our own seed requirements before any exports are permitted.
I want to know if we have commitments to supply a certain quantity of seed potatoes to Britain, or any, and if so, what that quantity is. I want to know if the price is to be the determining factor. I want to know the value of the amount to be sent. If the price is the determining factor we need not have any worries about seed potatoes because we are paying a higher price for them at the present time than the price agreed upon. I am asking for this information because I am, like many other people, concerned about our stocks of potatoes in this country. I think that no crop which we produced last year yielded so much below the average as the potato crop did. It is obvious to me, from the prices paid in our own towns, that people are more cautious than they have been, I think, any time since I was born, in connection with the stocks of potatoes. Practically none are being offered in the markets and the price is very high. That being so, I feel the Minister ought to give an indication as to where exactly we stand and as to what appreciation there is on his part and on the part of the Government in this connection. I feel we should be given an indication of the steps which are being taken to conserve stocks so that we will have sufficient available for distribution throughout the country wherever they will be required. That information will, at least, clarify the position for a great many people in the country.
I tried to get information from the Minister for Finance about this matter when he was here but I was unsuccessful. Some circumstances intervened to prevent my bringing the matter forward previously and now, at the last minute, I am able to do so.
Minister for Agriculture (Mr. Smith) Patrick Smith
Minister for Agriculture (Mr. Smith): Many members of this House who are interested in agricultural matters will understand that for the last 25 years or so efforts have been made to develop in this country the growing of certified seed and to find an export market for it, in addition to the home market. It is interesting to look back over the  last 25 years and to observe the success that has attended that effort. In 1922 the area involved was as small, I think, as about 204 acres. That area has grown steadily every year since. It has now reached something between 13,000 and 14,000 acres. These potatoes are grown in five or six counties—Mayo, Galway, Donegal, Sligo, Monaghan and Westmeath. That sort of development has been regarded, and rightly so, as being very suitable to these districts.
The negotiations which took place recently between the British Government and ourselves in regard to potato prices concern entirely the production of that area. Of course, the whole production of that area, in relation to the production of potatoes in this country, would be very small indeed. These discussions take place annually. They have to take place long in advance of the time when it would be possible to say, with any degree of certainty, what way the crop is going to turn out. While it would be impossible to make any reliable estimate at that particular stage it is, all the same, desirable that some figure should be used. The only way in which one can hit upon a figure is to examine the figure for the previous year or years and discussions in regard to prices have taken place on this occasion on that basis as on previous occasions. Members of the Seanad will also be aware that within the last five or six months we negotiated with the Spanish Government an agreement which concerns 6,000 tons of seed potatoes. That agreement provided for an exchange of potash. I felt somewhat disappointed with the agreement inasmuch as it covered a period of only two years.
In order to encourage the farmers in these areas to extend the acreage under potatoes it would be necessary to be able to say to them: “Well, we have an agreement with the Spanish Government—or whatever other Government with which discussions might take place on the same matter—covering a period of five years and you will be assured a market for such and such a quantity of potatoes at a fairly good price.” For one reason or another the  Spanish Government was very anxious to secure a much larger quantity of potatoes than we were able to give them though they were not, apparently, anxious to discuss an agreement with us on a long-term basis. There is not, therefore, any matter in this agreement affecting in any substantial way the normal seed requirements of our farmers. If you have regard to the acreage that is sown in potatoes in this country, the figure is round about 390,000 acres; therefore, the quantities involved here would make no substantial impression on that acreage one way or the other. It is, of course, understood that farmers, while they may from time to time change their seed—and from time to time the more progressive ones will go out for certified seed in order to enable them to make that change—neither the agreement with Spain nor Britain, even allowing for the fact that the crop this year is not as good as it was in other years, prevents farmers having a certain quantity of that certified seed available to them.
Undoubtedly, the ware potato crop, referred to by the Senator, is not as good this year as it was last. I am not able to give reliable information because it must be appreciated how difficult it is to say just what the actual position is; but it is right to say that it is not as bad as some would represent it to be. Where the land was wet and heavy and where it was impossible to plant potatoes in reasonably good condition the crop is far below normal. Where the land was dry in the better potato growing districts the crop is by no means as bad as some people would have us believe. I think it is right to say that the public at large and the farmers in general appreciate the danger. I think it is right to say that I never saw an occasion, as the Senator has stated, when the potato crop was being treated with more care. To whatever extent there is a deficiency caused by a poor return I hope it will be made good by that tendency towards saving on the part of all concerned. The prices that are being offered make it an entirely unattractive proposition for the farmers to cook potatoes for feeding animals. With that very noticeable and, in our present state of uncertainty,  that very desirable tendency, I believe that there is scarcely any need for us to be unduly alarmed. The potatoes are small. They are very firm and there is no doubt the farmers will find it possible to select from their own crop a sufficiency of seed to provide for themselves in the coming spring.
We are not committed in the matter of quantity under the agreement that has been made. We are committed only in our agreement with the Spanish Government. I have given the Seanad the figure. About half, or perhaps a little more, has already been exported. Our exports to Britain last year were only in the neighbourhood of 11,000 tons. The figure we had in mind during the course of our discussions was somewhat less than that. It was just taken as a figure, as I have already said, and there is no obligation upon us to export any particular figure. I would be glad, indeed, if the position were such that we could not only reach the figure mentioned which was 7,000 tons in those discussions but export a much larger quantity. It has to be remembered, too, that the varieties involved are not varieties in popular demand here. They are varieties grown for this particular trade.
Mr. Baxter Mr. Baxter
Mr. Baxter: What are they?
Mr. Smith Mr. Smith
Mr. Smith: Up-to-dates, King Edward, Arran Peak and some Arran Banners. These are varieties grown deliberately by the farmers concerned for a particular market. We also hope this year to export about 1,000 tons to Portugal. I do not know if we will be able to do that but, if the position enables us to do so, we shall be very glad to export that amount. There is also the matter of the export of about 100 tons each to five other small European countries. They are more or less trial consignments. Naturally we would like to make these contacts too. It is a desirable trade to encourage. While I admit quite frankly that this is an exceptional year and while we all realise the tragedy that would result from a shortage of ware potatoes or a shortage of seed potatoes, I do not think myself that with the care that is being taken we are likely to experience either of these very undesirable  calamities. I would again emphasise the fact that these are varieties which, in the main, are not in great demand here.
We must also keep in mind how essential it is to maintain as best we can a trade that has been nursed by all forms of encouragement on the part of the Government over the period of years I have mentioned, by way of subsidy and otherwise, to bring it to the stage at which it is to-day. We are hoping that there will be a trade for seed potatoes in these lands in the future. That is why we are desirous of making these contacts. I would like to see this area greatly extended. For that reason I would be very glad to send out these trial consignments to which I have referred. In the coming year, with an increase in artificial manures, I hope that the farmers in all areas will try to increase the acreage under potatoes. I understand, as Senators do, all the reasons why that has not taken place here for the last seven or eight years, but I still find it very disappointing to notice that, while the area under potatoes increased in 1940 and 1941, it has shown since then a tendency to decline a little bit. With the prices prevailing for a good many years now, the potato crop could be regarded, although it is a fairly troublesome crop, as one of the best paying crops that farmers could grow.
 In addition to desiring to encourage those engaged in the growing of seed potatoes, I would hope that this year we could succeed in inducing our farmers to extend the acreage, especially having regard to the more liberal allowance of artificial fertilisers which will be available. I know that the British Government would be glad to take, not only now, of course, when potatoes are scarce, but next year, a substantial quantity of ware potatoes from us at good prices. So far as my Department is concerned, we are having some discussions with them on that matter. I do not know whether they will result in any agreement but, whether they do or not, I hope to see a great increase in the potato areas as a whole and the seed potato crop we are talking about here.
Mr. Baxter Mr. Baxter
Mr. Baxter: Do I understand the Minister to say that we are committed to an export of the product of approximately 13,000 acres to Great Britain?
Mr. Smith Mr. Smith
Mr. Smith: The Senator's understanding is always faulty however clear my statements may be.
Mr. Baxter Mr. Baxter
Mr. Baxter: May I have a straight answer to that?
The Seanad adjourned at 9.55 p.m. until 3 p.m. on Thursday, December 18th, 1947.
Seanad Éireann 34 Adjournment Debate—Export of seed Potatoes.