Frustration over lack of CAP clarity

UFU annual meeting at Greenmount. Picture: Cliff Donaldson
UFU annual meeting at Greenmount. Picture: Cliff Donaldson

Following a week of intense conversations with members the leadership of Ulster Farmers’ Union has revealed that farmers are at their wits end as DARD continues to make painstakingly slow progress in clarifying key CAP implementation rules and regulations.

UFU president Ian Marshall said: “Myself and the rest of the leadership team have been fielding calls all week from very concerned and irate farmers who are all incredibly frustrated at the lack of guidance, progress and information forthcoming from DARD on key CAP issues, such as greening and land availability.

We have been hounding DARD on this issue for some time now and it is completely unacceptable that things are no further forward

UFU President Ian Marshall

“It beggars belief that we are in mid-March and there are still so many unanswered questions.

“Many farmers are feeling seriously let down by the department and there appears to be very little understanding amongst senior DARD officials about the practical realities of farming.

“Arable farmers in particular are finding themselves stuck between a rock and a hard place as detailed guidance on greening still has not materialised and yet now is the time that decisions have to be made about spring planting.

“We have been hounding DARD on this issue for some time now and it is completely unacceptable that things are no further forward.

“The recent revelations around greening requirements that Ecological Focus Areas will have to be mapped are not helping matters.

“The fact that we are at such a late stage and this information is only coming to light is extremely disappointing. Farmers expect and deserve more from a government department.”

Mr Marshall continued: “As this situation has come about through no fault of farmers, DARD must make a commitment that no financial reductions will be applied to the 30% greening payment in 2015 should a farmer make an honest mistake as a result of DARD’s failure to supply accurate guidance in a timely manner.

“The businesses of many potato and vegetable growers still hang in the balance as there has been no progress made on finding a solution to land availability issues.

“We are still waiting for the promised tele-conference between the UFU, DARD and EU Commission officials but the fact that it is nearly two weeks since our trip to Brussels and we are no further forward is very disheartening.

“When we met EU Commission officials recently, they could not understand why the issues were so complex or why DARD appeared to have made things so complicated. Failure by DARD to appropriately address the active farmer issue in 2013 discussions and the subsequent failure to inform the industry about the possible provision of Private Contract Clauses (PCC’s), which could potentially alleviate land availability issues for potato and vegetable growers, whereby two genuinely active farmers could rent land between their businesses, are also a major concern.

“A separate but an increasingly concerning issue that many farmers are now flagging up is the potential impact on direct payments should the Regional Reserve be oversubscribed, especially as at this stage there is no capping mechanism in place.

“There are already indications that some farmers are ‘splitting’ their businesses so that their son or daughter can take advantage of the Regional Reserve entering into the system as a new entrant and immediately drawing down the €329/hectare.

“Many farmers are genuinely worried about what impact these actions would have on the overall structure of the industry and in particular the impact on individual direct payments if the Regional Reserve is oversubscribed.

“It is possible that further significant reductions will have to be taken from individual direct payments to cover these new entrant applications.

“Farmers are further frustrated following reports that there are plans in ROI to cap the pot of money available for the Regional Reserve at 3%.

“Farmers are fed up having more questions than answers when it comes to the CAP rules and regulations.

“We have met with the minister and senior DARD officials frequently in the last few months and again this week to stress the urgent need to see these issues addressed and reiterated our offer to work with them to find solutions, but our concerns and offers seem to keep falling on deaf ears.

“With the countdown on for planting and direct payment applications we are looking to DARD to show immediate leadership.

“For a start, we want to see the greening guidance made available as soon as possible, a satisfactory resolution to the potato and vegetable grower land availability crisis found, and reassurance that DARD will ensure the Regional Reserve is not abused.

“The uncertainty caused by the continued delay, lack of progress, and lack of clarity on these significant CAP issues means many farm businesses are in limbo and farmers are being forced to make decisions without all the facts.

“The consequences of these ‘best guess’ decisions may be detrimental to a farm business, not only hindering any growth and development of that business but also the wider industry.

“Ultimately, DARD will be held responsible if they do not make quick progress, as they will not only have failed farmers but the wider industry as a whole.”

A spokesman for DARD said: “The department is continuing to put in place the necessary regulations, processes and guidance to help local farmers comply with CAP reform and benefit from the subsidy regime. In the final countdown toward CAP implementation, it is important to avoid creating confusion and uncertainty.

“The department is aware of the pressures on potato and vegetable growers as landowners are not offering the same land for rent this year as previously.

“The department’s position on the land availability issues based on EU regulation and EU auditor advice has already been communicated very clearly to the EU Commission. We have asked for a meeting with the Commission to discuss this in detail, and the Commission has yet to respond to our request. We will continue to pursue this matter, and the UFU has been kept fully informed of all of our actions.

“The department has been concerned to ensure that only active farmers would be eligible for the new Basic Payment Scheme. The department absolutely rejects the accusation that it did not appropriately address the active farmer issue in 2013 and the UFU was again kept very closely involved all the way through our negotiations on this matter.

“Decisions on the use of the Private Contract Clause were announced in July 2014 and comprehensive guidance has been made available on their potential use.”

The DARD spokesperson continued: “In relation to applications to the Regional Reserve, the department will be robust in ensuring that for the purposes of CAP and the administration of the Regional Reserve, any new businesses created are genuine new businesses. That reassurance has already been given to the UFU.

“Since summer 2014, the department has used a variety of channels to communicate information and advice on greening to build farmers’ understanding of the greening rules and help them to decide if any of the greening exemptions are applicable to their holding.

“These include publication of a series of ‘Countdown to CAP’ bulletins, a greening bulletin and press articles; the introduction of a suite of online support tools to aid decision making; direct correspondence with those farmers whose records indicate they may be likely to have undertake greening requirements in 2015; and a series of face-to-face workshops delivered through CAFRE involving hundreds of arable producers.

“The outstanding issue is how to declare features used for ecological focus area when making an application.

“The department only received confirmation from the Commission in February 2015 that it is mandatory to declare these features on a map.

“This has left a short period of time to develop the process but the guidance will be available in good time to enable applications to be completed and submitted well in advance of the deadline of 15 May.

“The department is heavily engaged in a range of public meetings to offer advice and support to farmers, and would encourage those with concerns to seek guidance.

“The department remains committed to working with the UFU to ensure its members and the wider agricultural industry fully understand the requirements of the new CAP regime.

“However, the department cannot choose to ignore key requirements of the EU regulations.”