'I thought no amount of red tape could faze me: how wrong I was'
I never bought into the notion that the Department of Agriculture is some kind of cruel taskmaster that has it in for farmers.
Despite the tirades I've listened to from farmers over the years about how the treatment they received from the Department, I also know lots of great people in Kildare Street and Maynooth and elsewhere who put their hearts and souls into what can often be a thankless job on behalf of the State.
But the last year has been an eye-opener for me and given more of the farmer's point of view.
It is almost 12 months ago that I decided to have another go at full-time farming.
Armed with my experiences in media and many years of part-time farming, I felt that no amount of government "red-tape" could faze me. Ah, the boundless optimism of youth! Over 200 pages of detailed rules, regulations, notices, and amendments later, I'm feeling fairly fazed alright.
First of all there was a litany of hoops to be jumped through to have entitlements transferred.
When that was finally sorted, I got a call from a Department fella one Friday who said that he just needed to do a parcel identification inspection. He knew that I had a few sheep too from the sheep census.
He wanted to call there and then but I was in the Independent offices in Dublin at the time, and so he organised to come to the farm the following Monday.
An affable chap turned up at the appointed time, and I duly showed him around amid pleasantries about silage cutting and the like. He seemed content that all the parcels checked out.
"Now what about those sheep," he added before leaving. "I presume that you've got all in order there?"
I've had two ewes and a few goats for the last 10 years that were part of a mobile farm unit that I brought around to schools to educate kids.
One of them didn't have a tag.
He told me not to be unduly worried, but to get a tag in the next few days, and he would return then.
It was the first sheep tag I ever ordered and it was duly applied. On the return visit the tags were noted, but then a sheep register was demanded, and when I indicated that I'd never had one, the tone changed.
A 5pc penalty duly followed in the following days, a big hit on the 250ac cropping enterprise that I was coming home to run.
The fact that the penalty was due to a totally non-commercial element parked in a corner of the farm only rubbed salt in the wound.
Of course, I was only notified of this days before the Basic Payment was due - a time when most farmers' cashflows are at their most vulnerable, since much of the year is spent waiting for proverbial "cheque in the post".
I still had my savings from my off-farm work to fall back on, so I appealed the fine, in the full knowledge that it would probably take a few months to sort out. More on that in a bit.
In the space of the subsequent four weeks I was notified that I was also in breach of nitrates rules which would result in a 20pc penalty, and that I was going to lose another 1pc after a 'remote sensing report' had found that I had claimed on ineligible areas.
I appealed both of these, especially the remote sensing result which carved out the end of the drills in each field where the planter has to be raised to turn.
They were being kept in good agricultural condition, and there is no other way to plant tubers or bulbs in the ground with machinery.
Both appeals were immediately accepted, but the appeal on the sheep tag had cost me handsomely and still lies in somebody's drawer somewhere.
This is a full12 months after I initially appealed, and over six months since the 20-minute hearing of the appeal in Navan.
This year I got another notice just days before the Basic Payment was due to be issued - this time to inform me that another slice had been carved off my total area for a gap or a hedge somewhere.
It didn't bother me to accept it since I had the land to spare.
But it reminded me of a farmer complaining bitterly about the issuing of notices of deductions and fines days before the payment is due.
Only the financially strongest of farmers can afford to hold out and fight their corner.
The vast majority simply have to accept the deduction and roll with it in order to keep cashflow - no matter how much reduced - coming in.
Thousands of uncontested reductions will undoubtedly multiply up over the years and reduce the total being paid out to farmers. Maybe that's the intention.
That way the Department officials can show the lads in Brussels that they've really pulled up their socks since the LPIS overclaim affair where EU auditors calculated that the Department had overpaid farmers to the tune of nearly €100m.
Unfortunately, all farmers are now bearing the brunt of Agriculture House's renewed efforts to administer a €2bn subsidy regime.
It's a shame that honest farmers - yes, I include myself here - get soured in the process, and yes, I'm one of those, too.
At some point the Department will need grassroots farmers championing their work, too.
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