After years of tortured negotiation and intricate implementation, the new Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is now, at last, officially in place. Alistair Driver outlines some of the challenges it presents.
It was a messy compromise among 28 member states but, if anything, the political agreement reached at EU level last year was the easy part.
For the UK’s four nations and other administrations across the EU the real challenge has been shaping what has been widely derided a ‘dog’s breakfast’ of a reform into something workable.
England’s advantage over many other administrations was an area-based system has already, with much pain, been put in place over the past seven years.
According to NFU vice chairman Guy Smith the biggest challenge in implementing the new Basic Payment Scheme will be the move to a brand new online-only application and payment system for all CAP schemes.
Mr Smith said: “Our message to Defra and Rural Payments Agency is to let farmers into this system as soon as possible to maximise the amount of time we get to overcome any gremlins which might be lurking with things such as mapping or registration.”
Mr Smith said the reform in England represented a significant change for farmers.
“We had got into the easy groove of sending in pre-populated forms but suddenly everything is going to be more complicated with the things like the three crop rule and Ecological Focus Areas,” he said.
“We will need to make sure all the maps are correct, which will involve digital mapping skills not all of us will have and general broadband issues.”
“Hopefully, everything will go smoothly. But with farmgate prices where they are, if the worst comes to the worst and farmers don’t get paid promptly in 2015, it won’t bear thinking about.”
In Wales, there are more problems.
The Welsh Government decision to scrap the moorland line before Christmas, after a key legal challenge by moorland farmers, effectively puts a key element of the reform – the move to area payments by 2019 – back to square one.
New proposed area designations and payment rates are being formulated but will not even be consulted on until February.
This is on top of challenges such as the need to map land for greening and woodland areas and implementing the National Reserve, which had already seen the Government admit it would have to resort to part payments next December.
Farmers Union of Wales president Emyr Jones said: “In Wales, Single Payment Scheme entitlements will be abolished on December 31, and new Basic Payment Scheme entitlements will be created uopn the number of eligible hectares declared on May 15 2015.
“From 2015 to 2018 Entitlement values will move gradually towards the final 2019 flat rates, but we won’t know what those rates will be for a number of months following the outcome of the legal challenge to the moorland area.”
He said another major concern in Wales, given the nature of its landscapes, was that agricultural areas with trees on would ‘basically no longer be eligible under the new rules’.
He added: “It is essential farmers familiarise themselves with the new rules to minimise the risk of financial losses, any errors or breaches.
“For example where a claimant cannot demonstrate sufficient management control of land taken on or where grazing is rented out – this could result in permanent annual losses, or even the loss of all entitlements.”
If anything, Scotland faces an even more complex reform. It is not only establishing three new payment regions but is introducing coupled payments to minimise the redistribution of funds away from productive farmers.
NFU Scotland has expressed concerns over greening rules, the impact on established businesses of the transition and the failure of the National Reserve to cater for some new and developing businesses.
Amid widespread about the impact of all this of delivery of the new scheme, the Scottish Government has said it will make payments as ‘early as we can’ but will keep the situation under review.
NFU Scotland president Nigel Miller said: “In driving forward the payment system, CAP implementation in Scotland appears to have been shaped by what suits software designers rather than being defined by Scottish policy requirements.
“That may be the right priority for Scottish Government officials but the stakes are high and we would want Cabinet Secretary Richard Lochhead to acknowledge that there will be collateral damage to some Scottish farming businesses by focusing solely on what fits computer systems and the payment date.”
Richard Wordsworth, NFU Senior BPS/SPS adviser, sets out the key issues farmers in England need to consider in the coming weeks as the new Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) comes into force.
The biggest change for many farmers growing crops is greening, in particular the crop diversification rules and the ecological focus (EFA) area 5 per cent requirement. The start of January marks the first day of the EFA fallow period, which then runs until June 30.
Every farmer needs to understand these new rules. They focus in on the non-agricultural activity carried out by the business wanting to claim BPS in 2015.
It does not matter if you are actively farming the land or not, it is about certain non-agricultural activities taking place.
Before Christmas, Defra changed the rules so farmers in England with more than 36 hectares (89 acres) of eligible land will qualify. But there is no substitute to reading the rules – if you are not considered an active farmer or able to use the re-admission criteria, then you are not eligible to receive the payment.
Claims under BPS and the new Countryside Stewardship scheme in England will need to be made on the new CAP IT software which Defra is developing.
The key message is to engage early by registering and checking details. You will not be able to do all the necessary work to complete your claim in one visit to the new system.
There are still many farmers without broadband or skills to submit a claim online, so please speak to the RPA at the earliest opportunity about available assistance.
At some point, farmers will need to notify the RPA about changes to field boundaries and ineligible areas via the new online CAP IT system. In the meantime, if you need to update your RLR maps, please send necessary details to RPA via the RLE 1 form sooner rather than later.
If you need to transfer entitlements before the BPS claim is made, then the transfer will need to take place via the new online CAP IT system. Details of when this can take place are still unhelpfully unclear. Remember, if you hold more entitlements in 2015 than declared hectares of eligible land, then the surplus ones will be lost.
It is vital to read the 2015 cross compliance guide. The key change is the removal of the Soil Protection Review, which is replaced by three new national minimum GAEC standards on soil management. Also, watch out for changes to hedge and tree trimming.