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Monday 18 February 2019

Mary Rooney: Why have compliance inspections become so stressful for so many farmers?

 

Mary Rooney is from Manorhamilton and runs a sheep and suckler farm across the border in Gorteen, Co Sligo. Photo: James Connolly
Mary Rooney is from Manorhamilton and runs a sheep and suckler farm across the border in Gorteen, Co Sligo. Photo: James Connolly
'Why has the visit from a Department official become such a stressful experience for some farmers?'

Mary Rooney

When I was growing up in the 1970s, a visit from a Department inspector meant gathering the sheep for inspection, or that a man was coming to look at your new shed, yard, or drainage project to approve it for a grant payment.

It was also an ­opportunity to get advice about what other grants were available. It was a relief when the day went well, and the sheep qualified, or the shed was signed off, but it was never a day where we feared that something was likely to be taken away from us.

So when, and why, has the visit from a Department official become such a stressful experience for some farmers?

The incomes of most farm families are dependent on the funds received from the schemes we participate in, and it is vital that ­nothing delays or reduces the ­expected payments.

Unfortunately, farm inspections, in one way or another, sometimes can do exactly that.

Farmers are unclear as to what to expect from specific inspections, or why disqualifications or penalties may have arisen without warning, and so a massive wedge now exists between farm families and the Department inspector.

You may have promised the silage contractor and the co-op they would get paid with your ANC payment in late September. The payment date arrives. The neighbours receive their money. You wait a week, maybe your cheque is in the second run.

Then you make the call to the Department, and after a long hold you get passed around from Billy to Jack before finally being told that there is a problem with your file. It wasn't ­previously highlighted, and it's being assessed - but it's not gone for payment yet.

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One neighbour will tell you if it's not sorted before your Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) payment is due, that payment will also be held up. Another says it was an LPIS inspection that's caught you, and it will be ­after Christmas before you'll get paid.

Stress over payments

You've done nothing wrong, or differently, to any other year; but suddenly you're in limbo, trying to avoid the silage contractor at the mart, and worrying how to find the next instalment of your child's college fees.

We've all experienced the stress of not knowing if, or when, our payments will come through. ­Regardless how small or how big the amount is, it's usually earmarked for bills. Some farmers have had payments delayed for three or four years in a row, because inspections were not fully completed and signed off, or due to re-digitising issues.

Regularly whole payments, across several schemes, get paid over three months late. There's no compensation on what ends up declared a clear file, or as having a very minimal penalty.

This is unacceptable, when on the other side the farmer faces a 1pc payment penalty for each day his BPS application is late getting to the Department, with 100pc penalty applying after 25 days.

It is only fair that the terms of the Farmers' Charter of Rights are upheld, and that farmers are notified in advance and within the expected timeframe if there is an issue that will delay their payments.

In the current CAP programme, we saw the introduction of schemes under Pillar 2, which were confusing and almost impossible to comply with. For example:

* Beef Genomics was viewed as so far removed from the real world by top quality suckler farmers, that scores felt they could not partake in the scheme. Adjustments to the original terms and conditions were necessary to allow those already participating within the operating scheme to remain compliant.

* With GLAS, ­commonage farmers realised ­immediately they had a major problem on their hands.

Was it possible the Department would introduce a scheme that would expect one farmer to be responsible for his neighbours' actions or lack thereof?

Even after the removal of the collective agreement condition, hundreds of commonage farmers avoided entering GLAS for fear of penalties arising from its difficult and unclear terms and conditions.

Other farmers without commonage found they didn't fit into any category that gave them access to the scheme, even though they had formerly participated in REPS or AEOS. For many, their environmental scheme payment was a very significant portion of their income - losing access to this payment was a tough financial blow.

* No one anticipated the difficulty that GLAS, and particularly the Commonage Management Plans (CMPs) would pose for planners, who had to create and input plans, and for the Department staff, who had to clear them for payment.

Where a scheme ­requires paying for a range of ­professional ­services ­(veterinary reports, ­nutrient management plans, commonage plans, etc) the net reward for the farmer must be reflective, or the overall costs of ­participation may be seen as prohibitive.

Simplification of the various schemes that will form the new CAP programme has to be examined very carefully.

Farmers must be given the chance to provide input into the design of schemes to ensure they are workable at farm level and to allow for payments to be delivered on time.

Future environmental and climate change schemes will need to be straightforward and have sufficient measures to allow a wide range of farmers the scope to access the scheme and deliver relevant outputs.

The Sheep Welfare Scheme is an excellent example of how a selection of relevant measures makes it easy for farmers to apply and comply with the rules of a scheme, whilst at the same time supporting better farming practices.

Mary Rooney is chairperson of the Leitrim/West Cavan region of the INHFA

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