A group of leading growers from within the Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU) and the Ulster Arable Society (UAS) has recommended that up to 85% of the current Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) budget is kept as an area-based payment going forward.
Setting out recommendations to develop sustainable arable production in NI, the report was produced by UFU committee members, Roy Lyttle, Robert Moore and David McElrea, along with Bruce Steele from the UAS.
The group was facilitated by retired senior Department of Agriculture official, Ian Duff.
The group also wants to see land tenure arrangements which enable long-term investment in soil, and growers protected from unfair competition from imports
Covering the combinable crops, field vegetables and potato sectors, the report sets out a vision for NI to be a “progressive mixed farming region” with growers working closely with livestock farmers to optimise the use of organic manures.
The group also wants to see land tenure arrangements which enable long-term investment in soil, and growers protected from unfair competition from imports produced to lower standards.
While the arable sector in NI accounts for 8% of total output, with 42,900ha grown in 2019, the area has been in steady decline since the 1850s when there were over 400,000ha of crops.
In the last 10 years, the NI crop area is down 20%. According to the report authors this decline is “driven largely by differences in profitability between the crop and livestock enterprises”.
Over 600,000t of protein feed is imported into NI each year
However, there is considerable potential to increase local production and displace imports. The UK is a net importer of £2bn worth of vegetables each year, while locally grown cereals meet only 22% of the needs of the livestock industry. Over 600,000t of protein feed is imported into NI each year.
There are also strong environmental and sustainability arguments for a return to more mixed farming. As well as being able to make efficient use of livestock nutrients, arable farming is associated with negligible ammonia emissions (a problem in the livestock sector) and has a relatively low carbon footprint per hectare.
In addition, the report authors note that the dominance of grassland farming has reduced habitat and feeding diversity for wildlife in NI.
With government support at current levels only guaranteed for the lifetime of the current parliament, which is due to end in 2024, the main body of the recommendations relate to what should happen in NI from 2022.
While that will set the direction for future support, the report authors highlight concerns about payments beyond 2024 and suggest that budget levels should be reviewed regularly and adjusted to take account of inflation, increasing costs and returns to the farming industry.
They recommend that 85% of the current £293m Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) is retained
But as a starting point, the group points out that without support, 75% of cereal growers are currently not profitable, so if that money is removed, many will exit the industry leaving just a cohort of specialist growers and a grass monoculture across most of NI.
They recommend that 85% of the current £293m Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) is retained as “area-based land management support” from 2022 onwards.
It works out at a budget of around £250m, which equates to a payment of approximately £100/acre.
However, the report suggests that this standard payment should be linked to various sustainability criteria, including that growers participate in the likes of benchmarking, and show evidence of active continuous professional development.
For those unable to meet these criteria on certain parts of their farm (eg conacre) there is a base rate
They would also have to undertake a number of environmental-related actions drawn from a menu, to include the likes of managing buffer strips and field margins for wildlife, soil testing, a carbon audit, and use of livestock manures in line with best practice.
For those unable to meet these criteria on certain parts of their farm (eg conacre) there is a base rate, with less demanding requirements, and set at 35% of the standard payment.
With a new area-based support payment utilising 85% of the current BPS, it leaves around £43m to be diverted into other schemes.
The report authors recommend that some of this money is used to top up the current budget for Tier 1 of the Farm Business Improvement Scheme (FBIS), creating an annual fund of £30m.
This increased budget would help avoid the “unpopular discounting and bidding system, used for Tier 1 to establish the merit order for the allocation of scarce funds,” notes the report.
Instead, the authors recommend that a new Tier 1 scheme would include some ring-fenced money for certain enterprises or areas of need, would have a grant rate of at least 50%, and a funding cap of at least £70,000 (currently 40% grant on expenditure of up to £30,000). They also want high-value, specialist secondhand equipment to be potentially eligible as this would represent better value for money when purchasing items.
The other scheme topped up from existing BPS money would be for environmental enhancement, with a total budget of £30m per year. While there is little detail given, the report authors suggest that new schemes should be developed between DAERA, industry and environmental groups and generate a positive income for farmers.
As well as recommendations for future support, the report authors also make the case for a number of initiatives to help deliver their vision for the sector.
They want to see a marketing and promotion body finally established in NI, part funded by the UK replacement for the EU Rural Development Programme, and if necessary topped up with a small amount taken from farmer direct payments.
They also potentially see a role for a food ombudsman in NI to encourage a fair distribution of margins along the supply chain, and want to see DAERA and CAFRE work with industry to deliver new innovation within the arable sector.
On the issue of land tenure, the group would like to see incentives for long-term leasing, such as income tax relief as exists in the Republic of Ireland, and also financial incentives to encourage the sub-lease of good quality grass to tillage.
However, whatever actions are taken to encourage changes in lease arrangements, they must accommodate the need for potato and vegetable growers to obtain “fresh land”.
Linked to the whole issue around access to land is a recommendation for a retirement scheme, with eligibility for payments reliant on the land being passed on to an active farmer or new entrant with the “approved competence”.
The group also want to see a NI carbon footprint calculator developed to international standards, and suitably resourced science and technology services to approve plant protection products.