As farmers, it often feels that we have to fight for everything that other people take for granted, writes ICSA rural development chairman Seamus Sherlock.
“Glas has lost its shine” was the mantra at ICSA’s protest last week at the lengthy delays in paying farmers what they are owed from the Glas scheme. The situation had become intolerable as over 10,000 farmers were still not paid, out of a total 37,500 applicants. In addition the older environmental scheme AEOS which is nearing its endpoint, has also seen delays with some 2,000 farmers not paid.
The background to the issue is that Glas is the showcase scheme of the national Rural Development Plan 2014-2020. It is the principle environmental and climate change scheme and it was launched in early 2015 with promises that 50,000 farmers who went the extra mile in implementing additional environmental management practices would participate.
Participation in the scheme was not simple, however. It requires farmers to undertake practices such as low emission slurry spreading, hedgerow management, or allocating land to traditional hay meadows, all of which incur costs in absolute terms or loss of production. The benefits in terms of reduced carbon emissions, better wildlife habitats and general ecological improvement accrue to all of society. Also, farmers had to pay a qualified expert to draw up a Glas plan in the first instance before applying, costing hundreds of euros.
The first round of applications was submitted by May 2015, with some 26,000 farmers, and a second round were accepted in 2016. As substantial numbers of farmers are still waiting for their first payment at the end of January 2017 — having been promised payment in 2016 — there is going to be mounting anger. It was for that reason that ICSA protested and sought answers from the Department of Agriculture as to why there seems to be no end in sight for this Glas debacle.
ICSA met with senior department officials following the protest and the impact of long delays was outlined. While officials stressed that everything possible was being done to clear the backlog, questions remain as to how this happened in the first place. As far back as early 2015, the department knew the scale and complexity of the scheme, so it was surely their responsibility to have the necessary administrative arrangements and IT infrastructure in place.
Clearly, the department admits that IT problems are at the core of the problem. However, blaming IT problems for the protracted delays is not a satisfactory excuse from a department who had two years to ensure the rollout of payments would run smoothly.
They should have got it right, and in fairness they are accepting that this should never happen again with Glas.
ICSA left the protest with confirmation that another 1,200 farmers would be paid immediately and that every effort would be made to conclude the vast bulk within six weeks. At this point, the flaws of the past two years will not be solved overnight and the Department cite EU intransigence in keeping to the strict letter of the regulation as a reason why the minister just can’t write out the outstanding cheques.
Needless to say, farmers are angry. They point out that public sector workers or people on the dole would not tolerate any delays.
Why should farmers be treated any different?
There are repercussions when you don’t get paid when you expect to. Anyone can understand this and I think everyone can relate to not getting paid the week before Christmas as you had budgeted for. It can throw serious cash flow problems your way and it is these cash flow issues that now plague farmers who haven’t been paid.
As farmers, it often feels that we have to fight for everything that other people take for granted. We essentially have to fight to be treated fairly; for fair inspections, for processors and retailers to give us a margin for our produce, and the list goes on. Fighting to be paid on time for work done should not be a battle we have to undertake. Farmers are too busy working too long hours for this. We know that the effects of financial difficulties can lead to all sorts of problems up to and including serious on farm accidents.
I hope the anger felt by farmers resonates with all department officials and that the professionalism of farmers is met in future with professionalism from them, not unanswered calls and excuses. We desperately need farmers to remain engaged with schemes such as Glas.
However, nobody wants to stand outside department buildings holding a placard looking for what is rightfully owed. It’s time for payments not promises. This fiasco should never have been allowed to get so out of hand given that it is now almost two years since the scheme was first opened. The people I’m speaking to are really furious, especially as the department imposed very tight deadlines on them and their planners in the first place.
In the wider context, we need to re-evaluate schemes and the rules around them. Schemes which are too complex and require huge investment in IT systems that might not work should be avoided. Most of all, we must establish the principle with Brussels to pay farmers on time and that any penalties can be easily recouped from balancing payments.
We can only hope that farmers will not be put off participating in this scheme, or indeed other schemes, in the future. However, as of today, for many farmers, it’s just another blue Monday waiting for Glas.
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