By Eoin McCarthy
Co Galway suckler and sheep farmer Kenneth O’Brien set up the ‘Forgotten Farmer Group’ three years ago. He is one of the “forgotten” himself. He started farming in 2002 but missed out on Installation Aid.
“I got no Installation Aid. I was farming during the noughties, fell through the cracks, and I could never get access to the National Reserve, for one reason or another. I have a green cert in agriculture.”
“We were told [by farm organisations] that we would be picked up in 2013.
“Through no fault of our own, the issue was kicked down the road until 2015.
“They weren’t ready to bring in the new CAP, so we lost two years there, then the national reserve came in, in 2015, I wasn’t getting access because I was longer than five years farming, so that’s when I went out and set up the Forgotten Farmer group.”
Kenneth O’Brien explains how the five-year rule has affected him, and other farmers in a similar situation.
“In 2015, I discover that if you were under 40 years of age, you were going to be picked up in the national reserve.
“I thought it was going to be a one-fit-for-all. I thought it was going to be fairness more so than favouritism, that anybody under the age of 40 would qualify for the national reserve, but then I discovered it was anybody that came into farming inside the last five years that got access to the national reserve.
“So I felt at that stage that we were being discriminated against, that’s when I set up the group, to find out how many of us were in this scenario.”
“On February 6, 2015, I held a meeting in the Hodson Bay Hotel in Athlone.
“One thousand farmers attended, and discovered that they were all in this situation.
“We met with the Department of Agriculture, and they came up with the figure that there was 3,900 farmers in this situation”
Thus were born Ireland’s ‘Forgotten Farmers’, referred to by the Department of Agriculture as a group of farmers which falls outside the conditions of the various schemes, which relate to age and the number of years that one is in control of one’s farm.
He credits Independent TD Michael Fitzmaurice with getting ‘forgotten farmers’ into the programme for government. The commitment in the programme published by Taoiseach Enda Kenny in 2016 stated, “We will seek recognition from the European Commission for ‘forgotten farmers’ as a group with specific disadvantage, under the National Reserve, in the same way that ‘Old Young Farmers’ are currently provided for. This category will include farmers under the age of 40, who do not currently meet the five-year rule and who did not receive Young Farmers Installation Aid.”
A linear cut from all farmers’ Basic Payment Scheme entitlements was made to create a €5 million National Reserve of entitlements in 2017.
Agriculture Minister Michael Creed has said Ireland consulted with the EU Commission on including Forgotten Farmers as a specific disadvantage category of the 2017 National Reserve, and was told Member States cannot use a linear cut to fund a specific disadvantage category. The only funding option for a specific disadvantage category is natural replenishment of the Reserve, such as unused entitlements or the proceeds of clawback, but only after the priority categories of “young farmer” and “new entrant to farming” have been catered for.
According to the Department, providing basic payment entitlements from the national reserve for all “forgotten farmers” would require another €12m on top of young farmer and new entrant funding, frim a further cut to every farmer’s EU payments.
Kenneth O’Brien says Agriculture Minister Michael Creed’s should have pushed for such a cut. “I have, on behalf of the Forgotten Farmer Group, met with the Department of Agriculture.
“I have been in on the Joint Oireachtas Committee, and I have been to Brussels.
“In Brussels, I was told that this is not a problem from Brussels, and that they would seek to deal with this issue, which they have done.
“They have given a directive that from the 1st of January, 2018, the Minister for Agriculture can push for a linear cut to accommodate the forgotten farmer.
“But, for some reason, Dublin is our problem, it’s not Europe”.
Kenneth has called for a more equal distribution of funding regardless of young farmers’ age. “We have situations where a young farmer might be 30 years of age, and cannot get access to the National Reserve, because they are longer than five years farming. We have farmers coming into agriculture, for the first time, at 39 years of age, and they can get access to the National Reserve, this is something that we need to pin down. I am putting it out there that any farmer under the age of 40, let it be a new entrant or a young farmer, should get access to the National Reserve. When we speak about that, the Minister replies that he cannot push for a linear cut.
“At the end of the day, this is about dividing the cake evenly. The Forgotten Farmers is a group under 40 that for one reason or another are longer than five years farming and they didn’t get access to the National Reserve. They are the life blood and they are the people that set up in rural Ireland with young families, that built homes, bought land, made a commitment to agriculture through the recession, and now they are being discriminated against,” he added.
“I am calling on the Minister, and I am calling on the farm organisations, to come out and identify what an active farmer is, because we have situations where herd numbers are being divided for people to get access to the National Reserve, and these individuals are not in this country, or they are gone off working.
Kenneth wants rules in place requiring people accessing the National Reserve to prove they are active farmers.
He claims, “The bigger farmers are dividing their herd numbers, they are dividing their parcels of land, and putting it out in their sons or daughters names, and they are getting access to the National Reserve that way.
“Their son or daughter may be gone off working, and they can earn up to €40,000 a year off the farm and still get access to the National Reserve.
“When you look at people like me committed to farming at 35 years of age and we can’t get access and we have a green cert, the whole system is wrong, and the farm organisations are protecting the Minister”.
Kenneth says; “This government are in for three years, they are to deal with this issue, they still have failed to do so for some odd reason, but we will be putting pressure on to get it dealt with because we want access for all farmers under that age of 40, to be treated with equality.