Thousands of farmers enrolled in the Agri-Climate Rural Environment Scheme (ACRES) are facing a delay in payments under the scheme, Department of Agriculture officials confirmed on Wednesday.
Farm organisations and Department officials met to discuss the delay to payments in Portlaoise on Wednesday.
Minister for Agriculture Charlie McConalogue acknowledged that farmers were expecting payment before the end of the year, but noted that the collective decision and hard work to include all 46,000 applicants into tranche one of ACRES had put significant pressure on delivering all payments by year end.
”My team has been working very hard to expedite this as quickly as possible, but with the unprecedented numbers, it has not been possible to get all applicants paid in ACRES by the year end.
"Payments will commence on 18 December, with two-thirds of all ACRES general participants in the final stages of being processed for payment before the year end.
“Due to the additional complexity associated with the co-operation (CP) stream, payments for ACRES CP participants are being progressed and will begin to issue February 2024.
"I can assure all ACRES applicants that everything possible is and will continue to be done to expedite payments to all 46,000 farmers,” he said.
At least 18,600 farmers in the co-operation stream will not receive payment under the scheme until February 2024.
This will come as a major shock to 18,600 farmers who were expecting payment before Christmas, Irish Natura and Hill Farmers Association (INHFA) president Vincent Roddy said.
Speaking after the meeting in Portlaoise, he said: "What makes this even harder to accept is that not alone will farmers be left without a payment, they don't know how much they will be paid as a result of the complex habitat scorecards.
“This illustrates our long-held concerns around the results-based model with the habitat scorecards, which is alien to what farmers have been familiar with in previous agri-environmental schemes and what [the] INHFA advocated during discussions on ACRES,” he said.
Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers Association (ICMSA) president Pat McCormack described the news that co-operation ACRES payments are to be delayed to February 2024 as wholly inappropriate.
He noted that the original scheduled end-of-November payment date has already been missed and he noted that this was still the payment date set out in the updated charter document circulated to farm organisations as recently as last week.
Close to 20,000 of the 46,000 participants in the scheme are affected by this disastrous administration and timeline failure
“Close to 20,000 of the 46,000 participants in the scheme are affected by this disastrous administration and timeline failure. Those farmers who are in the general ACRES scheme will start receiving 85% of their payment from 18 December,” he said.
He added that while delays and glitches are always a feature of new schemes, there is usually advance notice of delays that allows farmers to make covering arrangements, citing the delays and arrears of this year’s Basic Income Support for Sustainability (BISS) payments as an example.
The ACRES delays were of another order, he said, running to three months and the fact that farmers were only being told now - after the scheduled payments dates - was profoundly disrespectful and unacceptable.
Irish Farmers' Association (IFA) hill chair Caillin Conneely called on Minister McConalogue to intervene and do whatever is needed to ensure all ACRES co-operation farmers receive their payment before Christmas.
“We’ve always been told by the Department - even last week - that ACRES payments would land at the end of November.
"Now, at the 13th hour, we’ve been pulled into a meeting and told that the best ACRES CP farmers can hope for is for payments to land from February 2024 at the earliest. It’s completely unacceptable,” he said.
“Nothing has changed with ACRES, so the Department should have been ready for it. They have cocked up here and they need to sort it out quickly.
"We’re only weeks to Christmas and the bills that need to be paid are mounting up. There are thousands of farm families depending on this,” he said.
“As a hill farmer, we were sold a pup with ACRES, but this rubs salt into the wound.
"Firstly, we were told that we wouldn’t get our non-core payment until next year and now we’re told we won’t get any payment at all until next year. It’s ridiculous and it’s going to have a big financial impact on many farm families,” he said.
Irish Cattle and Sheep Association (ICSA) president Dermot Kelleher said the news will come as a devastating blow to all those farmers who have been already waiting far too long for their payments.
“The issue was not up for debate; it was simply a case of the Department telling us how it is.
"It is a disgraceful way to treat farmers who signed up to this scheme in good faith and who were eager to play their part in meeting climate targets for agriculture - even before any details of the scheme were available to them.
Many farmers rely heavily on scheme payments to pay their basic bills and any delay can cause severe hardship
“Now these farmers have been left out of pocket having completed the actions required and having expected payment in late November. Many farmers rely heavily on scheme payments to pay their basic bills and any delay can cause severe hardship.
"Planners, merchants and a host of others are currently demanding payments from farmers who simply have no way of paying them. No other cohort of people would be left high and dry like this; it is a disgrace and it must never happen again,” he said.
Sinn Féin spokesperson on agriculture Claire Kerrane TD has called on Minister McConalogue to provide answers on delays to ACRES payments.
“On top of the reported delay to ACRES payments, I understand the Minister has not clarified how many farmers will be affected or whether they will be informed should their payment be delayed.
“This is wholly unacceptable. Farmers rely on farm payments and rightly expect their payments to be received on time for actions they have taken,” she said.