Policymakers in NI should not follow the English approach to future direct payments, the UFU leadership team told local agri journalists last Thursday.
“The Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS) is not something we would wish for at all over here. It is not a freedom we would wish to have,” UFU deputy president David Brown maintained.
Starting this year, farmers in England are on a path to a new system that rewards them for environmentally sustainable practices.
Starting in 2021, direct payments to all English farmers will be cut by 5%
ELMS is to be the headline scheme, allowing participants to choose from a menu of agri-environment related options that best suit their farm.
A national pilot is expected later this year, and the scheme is due to be fully rolled out in 2024.
In the intervening period, Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) money will be reduced.
Starting in 2021, direct payments to all English farmers will be cut by 5%, with higher cuts applying to larger payments. By 2024, all farmers will see BPS payments halved, and by 2028, direct payments will be removed entirely.
The money taken from BPS will fund ELMS, but it will also be re-directed into new grants and schemes to boost productivity on farms, encourage in new entrants and allow existing farmers to exit the industry (by way of a lump sum payment).
However, longer term, EMLS is likely to account for the majority of the overall available budget.
At present, the only guarantee of funding to UK farmers is for the current year. However, there is a commitment from the UK government to maintain money going to farmers at 2019 levels through the lifetime of the current parliament (2024/25). By 2028, the vision for England is of a “renewed agricultural sector, where farms can be profitable and economically sustainable without subsidy”.
Given that local farmers are tied to the same EU rules under the NI Protocol, there is a strong argument to be made for continued support in NI
However, for farmers in the EU, there is now a confirmed CAP budget out to 2027. While there will be some changes (20%-30% of BPS money linked to “eco schemes”), farmers in the Republic of Ireland face a minimal cut of 2% in direct payments over the next seven years.
Given that local farmers are tied to the same EU rules under the NI Protocol, there is a strong argument to be made for continued support in NI, pointed out UFU CEO Wesley Aston.
But while counterparts south of the Irish border look set to retain an area-based payment model, the UFU leadership have bought into the thinking that the system needs a radical overhaul in NI. “Going forward, the system has to change. Payments will be outcome-based – either an environmental or production outcome,” suggested UFU president Victor Chestnutt.
While current plans involve a basic resilience payment, paid per ha, it will be at much lower levels than currently. Beyond that, farmers will be able to avail of agri-environment payments, or potentially grant schemes to encourage efficiency and productivity.
Andersons are also finalising a similar analysis for the dairy sector
The UFU, along with the Livestock and Meat Commission (LMC) and the NI Meat Exporters’ Association (NIMEA) have put a report to Minister Poots, prepared by business consultants, Andersons, outlining potential future options for the beef and sheep sector.
Andersons are also finalising a similar analysis for the dairy sector, while the UFU cereals, potatoes and vegetables committees are working on a joint effort, to be complete around the end of February.
For his part, Minister Poots is known to favour a return to coupled payments for the likes of suckler cows and hill sheep, as a means of getting money direct to producers. However, according to the UFU, the NI Protocol constrains him to EU rules, so he can only put a maximum of 13% of the total support budget into coupled schemes.
“It is probably fair to say that the minister hoped to have more freedom than he actually has” said Victor Chestnutt.
In recent instances where farmers have had cattle removed due to bovine TB, and where birds have been culled due to Avian Influenza (AI), the “Department has not covered itself in glory” UFU president Victor Chestnutt, told agri journalists last Thursday.
While he did not want to elaborate on what actually happened on the two farms where poultry were culled earlier this month, he hopes lessons have been learned.
“The DAERA response left a lot to be desired. Instead of alleviating stress on farms, they were adding to that stress” he said.
The leadership of the UFU is against any move to trigger Article 16 of the NI Protocol.
Against a backdrop of gaps appearing on supermarket shelves due to new trade friction from 1 January 2021, Unionist politicians in NI have been calling for the Article to be triggered to allow goods to again flow freely from Britain to NI.
“The prime minister responded to that by rightly pointing out that at this stage they are only teething problems,” UFU CEO Wesley Aston told reporters on Thursday.
Structures are there to address those issues
Under Article 16 of the withdrawal agreement, either the EU or UK government can act where the application of the protocol is leading to “economic, societal or environmental difficulties”, but Aston maintained such a move was not necessary.
“Structures are there to address those issues and we want to go through that process first of all before we actually say ‘this is an absolute disaster’ and ‘we have to invoke Article 16’,” he said.
“We will never go hungry in NI. We might not have the choice, but we will never go hungry,” added UFU president Victor Chestnutt.