The Ulster Farmers’ Union has said it will oppose any plan by DARD to use online as the primary channel for communicating and doing business with farmers and others.
“While technological advances are an opportunity to move our industry forward major cutbacks to traditional communication methods would disadvantage the farming sector, especially those who are not computer literate,” said UFU deputy president, Barclay Bell.
The UFU says variable broadband accessibility and quality in rural areas is an issue that affects many farmers that need to access DARD services. “Through no fault of their own, many farmers are simply unable to use broadband to perform even basic digital tasks. We understand that the Executive is considering options to improve broadband connectivity, but until this happens, it would be unfair for DARD to use online as its primary method of communicating,” said Mr Bell.
While there is a growing number of digitally savvy farmers with access to broadband, who may prefer online, success for them depends on a site that is easy to navigate and fit for purpose. “We would suggest that rather than imposing online, DARD should improve its systems and the assistance available. Then online would become the preferred option for those that have the technical knowledge and appropriate facilities,” said Mr Bell.
The UFU believes this consultation does little to recognise the needs of the digitally excluded but instead discriminates against them. “To suggest that Single Farm Payment forms would no longer be accepted at DARD Direct offices is wrong. This implies that a farmer could have to travel to Orchard House in Londonderry just to submit their SFP form,” said Mr Bell.
He added that the UFU would question whether these proposals meet the principles of the Executive’s Rural White Paper Action Plan or the proposed Rural Needs Bill.