DAERA Minister Andrew Muir is going against MLAs on Stormont’s agriculture committee by pressing on with plans to increase the minimum claim size for farm payments.

In May 2024, MLAs on the committee made it clear to senior DAERA officials that they opposed increasing the minimum claim area from 3ha to 5ha.

However, on Monday, Minister Muir told the committee that he wanted to stick with the plan to take effect from the 2025 scheme year.

“I am not currently planning to reverse this decision and work is progressing to ensure that the secondary legislation requirements will be in place in the autumn,” he said.

The Alliance MLA said the plan was “an economic decision based on evidence” which would impact around 1,400 small farm businesses in NI.

“Farms which are farming small areas of land are likely to have very low levels of agricultural activity, so their level of outlay and risk taking is likely to be low.

“Although there are exceptions, it is questionable that such farms should receive a resilience payment,” he said.

The minister said small farms still have options, such as taking on more farmland to remain eligible, or availing of the upcoming Farming with Nature scheme which will have a 3ha minimum claim area.

He also dismissed the argument that small farms should be allowed to claim the new Farm Sustainability Payment as it can help with getting planning permission for building a house.

“It shouldn’t be there to facilitate planning applications. That should be a separate matter,” Minister Muir said.

Suckler scheme

With just six months to go until the start of a new headage payment for sucklers, MLAs were also told that details of payment rates and finalised eligibility criteria are still to be confirmed.

At present, the proposed criteria is that mature cows will need to have a calving interval of 415 days in 2025, with this falling each year to reach 385 days in 2028.

For heifers, age of first calving needs to be 34 months or less in the first year of the scheme, falling to 29 months by year four.

“We are still working our way through the details of the Sucker Cow Scheme to bring forward to the minister for his consideration,” said Rosemary Agnew from DAERA.

Soil scheme will not be used for enforcement

Agriculture Minister Andrew Muir and a senior DAERA official have both given assurances that the Soil Nutrient Health Scheme (SNHS) will not be used for enforcement against farmers.

“It will be used as an education tool not as an enforcement tool. I think it’s important we give clarification on that,” Minister Muir said.

Similarly, Rosemary Agnew from DAERA said representatives from farmer organisations have been clear that soil analysis results from the SNHS cannot be used for inspections or penalties.

“They want to use the data to learn and change behaviour. They don’t want the data to be used for enforcement and that is not in the current planning,” she said.