Ireland’s young farmers are the next generation, the future and our most precious commodity in an ever-changing farming and agri-business landscape. Without them, there won’t be a future industry. It seems fairly plain then that our young farmers should be helped wherever possible to get a leg up in the industry and get themselves set up.
But not every young farmer is so lucky to get that help; indeed many are now facing the calamities of being ‘Old Young Farmers’ and ‘Forgotten Farmers’, unable to access vital grants and funding.
As That’s Farming’s Grace Treston has uncovered, the situation is much worse, with thousands waiting to complete Green Certs, hundreds frozen out of grant aid and more headaches from National Reserve problems. In the first of an investigation series into the problems facing young farmers, we look at the Forgotten Farmers.
Young farmers have their own unique struggles, and many were lucky enough to receive much-deserved support from the government. However, there is a discrepancy that becomes more disturbing as we delve further within.
‘Forgotten farmers’ has now become a haunted term. The reason? There is now not just one group who it applies to. More farmers are being forgotten as each year passes, and for different reasons. What does it mean?
Who are the Forgotten?
There are farmers in Ireland currently who fall under the 40-year age limit that makes them eligible for the Young Farmers’ Scheme; however, they have been continuously missing out on thousands worth of grants from the government, because of certain government dictations.
To be a part of the Young Farmers Scheme, these farmers have followed the rules set out by the government, but because of the ‘Five Year Rule’ whereby they can’t have been involved professionally in farming more than five years before application, many are missing out.
The Young Farmers Scheme, as explained by the IFA, is as follows:
“Young farmers can avail of the Young Farmer Scheme which provides an additional top-up payment to a farmer’s Basic Payment (BPS). The young Farmer Scheme payment is 25% of the national average payment per hectare multiplied by the number of entitlements activated by the applicant, subject to a maximum of 50.
“Successful applicants will receive payment under the Young Farmer Scheme for a maximum of five years, dated from the year of setting up the holding."
To qualify for the ‘Young Farmer’ Scheme you must fall under certain criteria, which you can read in full here.
The eligibility criteria for the Young Farmers Scheme is clearly listed, but various issues like the inflexible definition of ‘young’ as well as the sudden change of deadline in having the Green Cert completed (which we will cover in tomorrow’s article) have led to outrage on behalf of forgotten farmers who have missed out.
The excuses made by the government in response to the outrage seem to be shrouded in mystery. Farmers are crying out for help; many feel they have been unjustly shunned from receiving the same funding that their peers have been given.
EU regulations have been cited by the government as the reason for much of the ‘red tape’. If this were the case, then perhaps farmers’ anger could be directed at Brussels.
However, is it possible that the real obstacle for farmers has come from within our own nation? Are internal issues with our leaders to blame for the loss of thousands in grants?
There is mounting evidence for this argument. Whether anyone wants to admit it or not, restrictions that can most certainly be labelled unfair and unjust are affecting our farmers; and after some investigation it appears that they’re not being imposed by the EU. So why are they there?
Five Year Rule
Some farmers are missing out on the government’s 60% farm buildings grant, for example, as they are not eligible for consideration because they have been farming for over five years; at least in the eyes of the government.
This can prove problematic for farmers who may have registered a herd number more than five years ago, but have only begun to farm in the past few months. Once they have been ‘farming’ for five years, they are no longer a young farmer, and do not qualify for several important payments. Even applying through the New Entrant category of the Young Farmers Scheme, these farmers are ineligible.
As you probably already know, ‘Old young farmer’ is currently the term used for the group of farmers who, because of the dates in 2008 or 2009 that they established their farm holding, never got the chance to avail of the Young Farmers Installation Scheme. These farmers, in 2015, could also not be counted as ‘young farmers’ under the new Basic Payment Scheme, therefore missing out completely.
For these farmers, they may have completed the Green Cert Level 6 educational requirement as demanded by the government (which the Department claims is a direct piece of EU regulation; an important point to keep in our minds which will be explored in tomorrow’s piece) but they are still ineligible for the Young Farmers Scheme.
What has been done?
When the issue of the Forgotten and Old Young Farmers was pressed by the ‘Forgotten Farmers’ group, comprising Kenneth O’Brien among others, the government reportedly cited Brussels as the source of delays in dealing with new funding for the National Reserve.
It has been admitted by Creed’s office that the Minister for Agriculture could apply under EU regulation for National Reserve funding under the ‘Specific Disadvantage’ category.
Neilus O’Connor, a farmer who describes himself as both a Forgotten Farmer and an Old Young Farmer, lost out on entitlements.
He says that he would have been entitled to everything had he and his classmates’ Green Certs been presented on time in 2007. There was a four month delay in receiving his Green Cert after completing his course in Killarney with approximately 40 others. This delay had a devastating effect on the life of Neilus and his classmates, as the delay meant they were unable to apply for grants like the Installation Aid.
He was in contact with the Minister of Agriculture’s office, and emailed the Minister his questions about the National Reserve, Old Young Farmers, and Forgotten Farmers.
In a letter received by Neilus from a representative of Minister Creed, it was stated that the National Reserve measure of the BPS must prioritise the ‘young farmer’ and ‘new entrant’ applicants. Once they are catered to, farmers under the ‘specific disadvantage’ category, like the farmers who are missing out on their entitlements, can be helped.
The letter to Neilus from private secretary to Minister Creed, Mister Graham Lennox, was sent on 7th December 2016, and it states :
“The Regulations governing the operation of the National Reserve also include an optional provision whereby Member States may use the National Reserve to allocate new entitlements or give a top-up on the value of existing entitlements for persons who suffer from a ‘Specific Disadvantage’.”
The letter states that ‘decisions regarding the eligibility of farmers under the specific disadvantage category of the National Reserve require the approval of the EU Commission’.
“Following the Department’s consultation with the EU Commission, the then Minister announced in March 2015 that the group commonly known as ‘Old Young Farmers’, who established their holding between 1 January 2008 and 31 December 2009, and who, due to the timeframe of setting up their holding did not benefit from either the Installation Aid or the Young Farmer category of the National Reserve, could be considered as a ‘group suffering from specific disadvantage’. Following approval by the EU Commission this group was eligible to apply under the National Reserve measure of the 2015 Basic Payment Scheme. Some 280 applicants were successful under the Old Young Farmer category of the 2015 National Reserve. Therefore the ‘Old Young Farmer’ group has already been catered for under the 2015 National Reserve.”
On the issue of the Forgotten Farmer group, the Minister’s office describes them as ‘farmers under 40 who established their holdings prior to 2008, and who hold no entitlements or low value entitlements’. Lennox’s letter confirms that the current Programme for a Partnership Government contains a commitment to further pursue the category of ‘forgotten farmers’ at an EU level.
On the issue of the National Reserve, it was stated that there was no reserve in 2016, as ‘all available funding had been utilised under the 2015 scheme’.
“In order to provide for a National Reserve in 2017 funding is required to replenish the Reserve. EU Regulations governing the scheme provide that funding for the replenishment of the National Reserve may be obtained by means of surrender of entitlements that remain unused by farmers for two consecutive years and by claw-back derived following the sale of entitlements without land. It is envisaged that funding derived from these two sources in 2017 will be very limited.”
The letter also states that ‘decisions in relation to the National Reserve for 2017 will be considered once the position on potential funding has been established’.
In the Programme for Government’s online publication, it was indeed promised by the Department that approval for ‘specific disadvantage’ funding would be actively sought from the EU:
“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 forty, who do not currently meet the five year rule and who did not receive Young Farmers Installation Aid.”
In the letter, Creed’s office says it has dealt with the Old Young Farmer issue; however, as Neilus points out, he brought their entitlements up from €100 to €250, without providing them with the €60 top-up for 5 years. They were brought up to the national average, according to Neilus, who adds that it also only dealt with those under CAP 2015, not the current CAP.
Neilus has described the situation as this:
“If we don’t get a reserve opened up, then we have an unlevel playing field for both parties; anyone who started in 2015, you lease 30 hectares, under the €250 national average, you’d qualify in National Reserve for a €69 top-up, so it adds up to about €310 per entitlement. If you started last year, you get no entitlements because the only way you can get a top-up is if you have existing entitlements; unless you go into partnership with your father for example.
“A farmer will not get entitlements if he applies in the next CAP after 2020; it’ll be the Young Farmers scheme again. Stats on young farmers say that they dropped back substantially since 1955; there are more farmers over 65 than there are under 35. The same thing will happen again as it did in 2008, and a new forgotten farmers group will be created.”
Neilus had to purchase his entitlements, worth about €6,000, for his 20 hectares and he had to give €15,000. He admits that the funding provided by Coveney and now Creed are a fantastic support; but only when they’re given fairly to everyone:
“This stop-start system can’t go on. It’s not fair that one group gets something and another doesn’t when they’re entitled to it.”
At an IFA AGM on January 17th 2017, Neilus asked President Joe Healy if he could ask Minister Creed a question.
He asked what the situation is currently with the National Reserve, where the potential funding will come from, and what the situation is with the Old Young Farmers.
Creed answered that the Reserve ‘would be reviewed’, and that he was hopeful that the funds would come from unused entitlements, or from farmers who had gone past five years and were no longer eligible for the Young Farmers Scheme. He claims that he has sent a submission for ‘specific disadvantage’ funding to the EU, to which he had received a poor and vague response.
What is the truth?
However, last year when the matter of specific disadvantage funding was taken to Belgium by Kenneth O’Brien, his peers, and Deputy Michael Fitzmaurice in June 2016, the problem with funding was labelled a ‘local issue’. Those within the EU governing body spoke to the ‘Forgotten Farmers’ and Fitzmaurice, stating categorically that the issues they’re bringing up are not synonymous with current compulsory EU legislation.
Michael Fitzmaurice has said that those he spoke with in Brussels stated, under no uncertain terms, that they would have ‘absolutely no problem’ with providing funding for farmers in need, like Old Young Farmers and Forgotten Farmers if the proper request was to be submitted by our government.
This is in conflict with the ‘poor and vague response’ that Creed says his submission was met with.
Fitzmaurice also adds that the issue needs to be dealt with without delay, as BPS forms need to be submitted within the next few months. He adds that as per the commitments that were made in the Programme for Government, action should have already been taken to replenish the National Reserve.
He says that during the midterm review of the CAP, it was suggested that payments be reduced from €150,000 to €100,000; if this had been done, there would be money for the Reserve, says Fitzmaurice.
The farmers being forgotten and left without much needed entitlements are waiting to be seen or heard by the government. It’s been known for the past two years minimum that there are farmers at a specific disadvantage when it comes to the Young Farmers Scheme.
The crux of the matter is this; the issue hasn’t been dealt with fully as of yet, and if the Department of Agriculture has started dealing with it by submitting an application for ‘specific disadvantage’ funding, then the effort is a too-late comfort which is yet to show any results.
If the Minister for Agriculture has indeed submitted a specific disadvantage claim in the time since Fitzmaurice was told in Brussels in June 2016 that submissions are welcome if they're received, then farmers deserve to see proof of this, and proof of the supposed ‘vague’ response by the EU.
This is just part one of our investigation into the problems and issues facing young farmers. Part two is out tomorrow. Have you been affected? We want to hear from you.
Tomorrow’s article will cover a disturbing discovery about the source of Green Cert rules. Have the education requirements really come from the EU?
Friday’s article will cover our third investigative piece: why hasn’t the National Reserve been replenished like it should be?