AEOS cutbacks slammed

OFFALY members of the Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmers Association (ICSA) while welcoming the announcement by Minister for Agriculture, Simon Coveney, to re-open the Agri-Environment Options Scheme (AEOS), have expressed extreme disappointment at the decision to halve the total funding and cut the maximum payment by €1,000 compared to last year.

OFFALY members of the Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmers Association (ICSA) while welcoming the announcement by Minister for Agriculture, Simon Coveney, to re-open the Agri-Environment Options Scheme (AEOS), have expressed extreme disappointment at the decision to halve the total funding and cut the maximum payment by €1,000 compared to last year.

While IFA President John Bryan is seeking an urgent meeting with the Minister to outline the gravity of his decision to reduce the number of farmers eligible and the maximum payment for AEOS.

Paddy Kent, ICSA Leinster Vice President, said, “While we appreciate the efforts of the Minister to maintain the scheme we cannot be but disappointed with the fact that the total funding allocation has been cut in half from €50 million to €25 million. For many farmers a maximum payment of €4,000 will make participation in the scheme a marginal exercise at best especially when costs are taken into account.”

Mr Kent said the decision will have an impact on the wider rural economy because the employment spin-off will be notably reduced. He added it must be remembered that REPS delivered significant benefits to the local economies but this was only possible with much higher funding levels.

“The impact on small and medium scale cattle and sheep farmers who do not have large single farm payments or milk quotas will be particularly severe. It is evident that this scheme will not be sufficient to cope with some 10,000 farmers exiting REPS 3 this year given that the funding is likely to be only sufficient for a maximum of 7,000 farmers,” said Mr Kent.

He said this decision puts a question mark over the ability of the new Government to deliver on the potential of the Food Harvest 2020 report. Mr Kent said the announcement reiterates the reality that efforts to bail out the banks are extracting too high a cost when we see the negative impact on productive, export lead sectors. “Offaly farmers will see this decision as prioritising failed banks over sustainable farms.”

Mr Bryan said that rowing back on a Budget decision is unacceptable as up to 2,000 farmers will now not be able to join the scheme and those who do qualify will get a lower payment than what was promised.

The decision will be devastating for low income farmers who depend greatly on direct supports such as AEOS.

The IFA President said, “Up to 10,000 farmers will have completed their REPS 3 Plan before the mid-May next application date. The agri-environmental payment is an integral part of the farming system, supporting farm incomes and adding greatly to the environment and the rural economy.”

IFA Rural Development Chairman Tom Turley said that reducing the numbers in the scheme will mean that many farmers who will apply will be turned down. Over half of farmers who are likely to apply will now be rejected as a result of the Minister’s decision. Also reducing the maximum payment by €1,000 is a major blow to low income farmers and the problem is significantly acute in SAC areas where farming activities are restricted.

Meanwhile, Deputy Barry Cowen has called on Minister Coveney to clarify details of the new AEOS scheme without delay.

“The new Agri-Environment Options Scheme which was conceived and developed by the last Government has just been announced. Following on from the very successful REPS, Irish farmers need to be encouraged and supported in their commitment to farming in an environmentally friendly way,” said Deputy Cowen.

He said the Minister was due to announce details of the new Agri-Environment Options Scheme last but local farmers had to wait until now for the details and still there are several points which require clarification.

“Fianna Fáil in Government set aside enough funding so that 10,000 farmers could apply to take part in the scheme and receive a maximum payment of €5,000. This equates to approximately €50 million in funding in 2011. However, now the Minister is only offering farmers a maximum payment of €4,000 and has not confirmed how many farmers will be able to take part. Only €24 million is being given to the scheme this year at a payment level of €4,000 this would equate to only 6,000 applicants,” said Deputy Cowen.

He said the Minister must clarify how many farmers will be able to take part in the scheme and why only €4,000 will be awarded as the maximum payment so farmers can prepare the necessary plans and application.

“We all know that cashflow is one of the biggest challenges facing farmers so it is very unfair to reduce their expectations in this regard. The Scheme is 50/50 EU and Irish Government funded and the closing date is May 16 so the Minister must act quickly,” said Deputy Cowen.

He said in their last Budget the Fianna Fáil led Government committed to retaining the payment levels for all of the main agricultural schemes including this Agri-Environment Options Scheme.

“Fianna Fáil understands that farmers and farm families form the backbone of our rural communities and need to be supported financially. The Minister needs to act now in support of farmers,” concluded Deputy Cowen.