The inability of the Farm Minister Michelle O’Neill – purely on technical grounds - to green light advance Pillar 1 CAP payments has been a source of deep annoyance for farmers here in Northern Ireland over the past number of years.
Adding fuel to the fire in this regard is the fact that producers south of the border have never had problems of this nature to confront. The end result of all this has been an unfolding scenario which has seen farmers in Northern Ireland suffering with exacerbated cash flow problems during the autumn months.
So much for the history lesson: the good news is that farmers in Northern Ireland will be able to avail of advance Pillar 1 payments in 2016, provided 70% plus of producers submit their Single Application Forms (SAFs) on line over the coming weeks.
This brings the issue of broadband availability in rural areas immediately centre stage. And, yes, there are problems in this regard, particularly where broadband speeds are concerned. But this should not constitute an insurmountable problem, when it comes to farmers submitting their SAFs on-line.
What will be required is a concerted effort by the farming industry as a whole so as to ensure that those farmers who are either uncomfortable using the internet, or have broadband problems at home, can tap into a service that reflects these needs.
The most obvious organisation with a role to play here is the Northern Ireland Agricultural Consultants’ Association (NIACA). From memory, 40% of the SAFs handled by that organisation’s membership were submitted on-line in 2014. This is a significant figure, but it is still well below the aforementioned 70% threshold.
Given these circumstances it would behove NIACA to look at the possibility of hosting bespoke clinics for farmers with internet-related problems at home. Ulster Farmers’ Union offices would be more than suitable venues for this type of event. In tandem with this NIACA, and all of the other agri stakeholder groups, should be strongly encouraging farmers publically to submit their 2016 SAF forms on-line.
And, of course, for those producers who wish to plough their own furrow, local libraries and DARD Direct Offices offer excellent internet facilities.