Minister stays tightlipped on extension of farming funds
AGRICULTURE Minister Brendan Smith has said he cannot give farmers any guarantees on the level of funding available for farm schemes next year.
However, he confirmed yesterday that the EU has given the green light for the early payment of more than €600m in single farm payments to help farmers hit by this year's severe weather and credit difficulties, added to by low incomes in 2009.
The advance payment of 50pc of Irish farmers' allocation of €1.2bn under this scheme had been approved in Brussels on Tuesday and would be processed quickly, with most receiving it on the earliest possible date of October 18, he said.
Speaking at the National Ploughing Championships in Athy, Co Kildare, Mr Smith said that, in total, including the Disadvantaged Areas and Grassland Sheep schemes, Irish farmers would get €1.5bn in EU payments between now and December which "would provide a very welcome boost for Irish farm families".
But when it came to calls for increased funding of the Government's Agri-Environment Options Scheme which the Irish Farmers' Association (IFA) wants extended to 25,000 farmers, Mr Smith said he could give no such assurances.
He said the estimates process was now under way and the level of funding would not be known until the week before the December Budget.
"Every item of expenditure for each government department will be considered between now and then.
"No minister or department knows what allocation they will have for any particular programme until the estimates process is completed.
"That happens every year and there's no change in that," he said.
However, he confirmed that the department had this week approved applications, to take part in this year's scheme, from almost 6,000 farmers -- or two-thirds of the 9,200 applicants.
The scheme provides up to €5,000 a year to farmers who carry out specific ecofriendly measures, including those that boost biodiversity and water quality.
But IFA president John Bryan said that to ensure a thriving agrifood sector, Mr Smith needed to make his voice heard at the cabinet table and fight for the funding required.
Welcoming Taoiseach Brian Cowen's announcement yesterday of a plan to reduce costs for business, Mr Bryan said the IFA would shortly be submitting its own proposals on the subject.
"Key among these will be a significant reduction in on-farm bureaucracy, simplification of accountancy and reporting requirements and a reduction in government-controlled costs, especially in fuel, energy and waste management," he said.
Meanwhile, fears that heavy rain early yesterday would deter visitors to the second day of the ploughing championships proved unfounded as attendance topped 74,000.
The National Ploughing Association spokeswoman Anna Marie McHugh said they were very happy with the figures.
"There were an awful lot of buses coming in so the traffic mightn't have felt as heavy, but in fact, we had to open up reserve parking which we didn't have to do at all last year," she said.
Garda Superintendent Pat Kavanagh said that there had been some congestion on the southern blue route from Cork, but traffic had flowed reasonably well all round.
Muddy conditions underfoot caused some difficulties getting heavy vehicles in yesterday morning but the day had proven drier than expected and they were monitoring car park exits closely during the evening rush, added Ms McHugh.
Also speaking yesterday, Mr Smith said that he was very focused on building up alliances for Ireland to defend the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) in the upcoming review, with EU Commission proposals set to be published in November.
His priorities would be fighting for a fully funded CAP, preserving its current architecture.
This included retaining direct payments to farmers along with market support measures which gave some guarantees against the extreme price volatility suffered by farmers in recent years.
He would also continue to argue for preserving the historical system of paying farmers according to what they used to produce, but said there was little support for this view in other countries.
"It's still a priority for us. We've been laying that out very strongly, but I have to say the support in other member states for it is very small, very limited."
However, he said he had not given up on it and he and farm organisations would raise it with EU Farm Commissioner Dacian Ciolos when he visited Ireland next week.