Wednesday 30 July 2014

New Commonage Implementation Commitee to meet shortly.

The Minister for Agriculture has announced that the new Commonage Implementation Committee will meet for the first time in the near future.  This is a positive development as it is clear that the Committee has a lot to do and it is important that it begins its work very soon.  In particular they need to manage the introduction of the new max/ min figures.  These figures will require many farmers to adjust their stock numbers.  Farmers must be able to take these into  account when deciding on the number of ewes to be culled and how many hoggets' to be kept.  If the min/ max figures are not published before the Autumn sales, farmers will be forced to make key decision in the dark. This would unnecessarily frustrate the process of increasing flock sizes and would be a bad start to a period of transition.  It is in no ones interest that this should happen.

The full text of the Department of Agricultures Press Release is shown below.

"The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Simon Coveney TD, announced today that all members of the new Commonage Implementation Committee have now been appointed and the Committee will announce its first meeting date shortly.

The Committee is chaired by Joe Healy, a livestock farmer from Galway and former President of Macra na Feirme, and former Chairman of Athenry Mart. He will be assisted by two senior Department officials with specific experience in this field and two technical experts, one from the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht and one from Teagasc. Also appointed to the Committee is Andy McGarrigle, former Head of the Department’s SPS Entitlement Division, who retired earlier this year.

The new Committee has two main terms of reference:

• To examine cases where there is disagreement by shareholders over proposed minimum/maximum stocking levels for commonages;

• To assist with instances where difficulties emerge in securing the necessary 50% agreement amongst active shareholders for participation in the new GLAS agri-environmental scheme

Commenting today, Minister Coveney said that his priority had been to get this Committee up-and running without delay. "I am very aware of the concern amongst commonage shareholders about these new proposals and I want to ensure that we iron-out any remaining issues in good time, with an eye to next year’s Single Farm Payment and applications for the new GLAS scheme. I believe this new Committee will play a key role in resolving specific issues at individual commonage level."

Friday 18 July 2014

Commonage Review and Right of Appeal.

 Commonage Framework Plans

Eamonn O Cuiv TD has asked the Minister for Agriculture in a parliamentary question when will the commonage reviews be completed. The Ministers response suggests that this is imminent and that commonage farmers will soon receive a letter from the Dept. of Agriculture showing the maximum and minimum figures for their commonage.  The Minister has also pointed out that farmers will have the right to submit alternative figures based on an assessment by a professional planner. A transcript of this exchange is shown below.
Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine When the commonage reviews promised will be completed; the compensation that will be paid to farmers in the meantime for compulsory destocking of livestock from commonages; the reason that arbitrary destocking limits are being imposed on commonages without any up to date evidence of their need; the reason for the delay in publishing up to date commonage framework plans; and if he will make a statement on the matter.


Commonage and Eligibility for the New Basic Payment Scheme.

Earlier this month, Tom Moran, Secretary General of the Dept. of Agriculture, Food and the Marine addressed the members of the Oireachtas Agriculture Committee on recent EU Developments.  His address covered a wide range of issues but the commonage issue was highlighted by a number of the committee members notably Eamonn O Cuiv T.D.  An extract from Mr. Moran’s response follows.

“On the question of commonages and so on, commonages spill over Pillars 1 and 2. I know Deputy Ó Cuív and others have a strong interest in and attachment to them. They are a difficult concept to handle within the Common Agricultural Policy, probably because the concept is not generally shared across other member states, but some key factors apply, one of which is the principle of active farming. Active farming has been spelt out clearly in the new Common Agricultural Policy. If payments are to go to active farmers, by definition, active farmers must be defined and if they are defined, it must be done by some means. The way we do it is by the actual farming. In commonage terms it means the holding stock. In other words, if someone farming on a commonage wants to claim a Pillar 1 single payment, they must stock in line with commonage framework plans coming down the track. If, however, they apply under GLAS, the new environmental scheme, by definition they must do more than is required under Pillar 1. If someone has land in commonage, they must add some further environmental condition to get the newly announced payment of €120 per hectare.

The most important points here are the requirement to stock a commonage in order to get pillar 1 payments, i.e. Basic Payment Scheme and the requirement to add some further environmental condition to get the GLAS payment on the commonage.  To those who have been following the development of the commonage issue, it has been clear for some time that the issues connected with pillar 1 payments have been driving the process.  Although publically at least they seem in recent months to have been obscured by the debate about collective agreements for GLAS. Now that the RDP application has been made this issue is coming to light again. This is a far more important issue than GLAS and it will have implications for all farmers with commonage lands.

What does this mean for the farmer, the most likely interpretation is that inactive farmers, i.e. those people who farm their enclosed lands, declare commonage shares as forage area but in practice make no use of them will no longer be entitled to any payment on the commonage lands.  In some cases the owned share of the commonage is very small and the impact of this will be minimal.  However for many farmers the impact will be significant as the commonage share draws down the bulk of their payments.  For some, changing their farming system and making use of the commonage may be an option, for others this will not be practical and the viability of their enterprise will be undermined.

The Dept. of Agriculture will most likely use the min/ max figures first published in 2012 to determine the required level of activity on the commonage.  How they will deal with the level of dormancy is unclear but the most likely options are either to divide the min/ max figures in accordance with the shares held or split it between the declared shares.  The first option ignores dormancy and makes no sense whatsoever, the second takes dormancy into account but places a greater burden on the active farmer.  The problem with either approach is that the number of stock a farmer can keep is largely determined by the enclosed land and farm infrastructure and not by the area of the commonage.  There is a very real risk that in some areas, particularly where the ratio between commonage size and the enclosed land is high and where land parcels are small and scattered, e.g. South Connemara that there will be no prospect of farmers being able to reach the minimum level.

Any appeal against the relevance of the min/ max figures will take time and I fear will have to be financed by the farmers themselves.  A factor that will discourage many farmers from pursuing this option. In the absence of a successful appeal, farming in these areas is faces a major threat and huge swathes of land, enclosed and commonage will inevitably be abandoned.

As the Secretary General says eligibility for GLAS will require a step beyond these minimum activity levels.  While this will entail a commonage plan and a commonage agreement it is unclear as to what these will contain or how they will be implemented.

What is clear is that the recently announced Commonage Implementation Committee will have a lot to do.

Wednesday 9 July 2014

Chairman of Commonage Implementation Committee Appointed.

The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine has appointed Joe Healy as chairman of the Commonage Implementation Committee. This is a positive development and hopefully will lead to progress in developing the commonage management issue for the benefit of all stakeholders.
The full text of the Dept. of Agricultures press release is shown below.
105/14 09 July 2014


The Minister for Agriculture Food and the Marine, Simon Coveney TD announced today that he has appointed Mr Joe Healy as Chairman of the newly formed Commonage Implementation Committee. Mr Healy is a livestock farmer from Galway. He is former President of Macra na Feirme and former Chairman of Athenry Mart.

"When I met the farming organisations last week about the Rural Development Programme, I said I would appoint the chairman and get this new Commonage Implementation Committee up and running without delay. I am very pleased that Joe Healy has agreed to act as chairman and I believe he will bring a wealth of experience and energy to this role."

Mr Healy will be assisted on the committee by senior officials from the Department of Agriculture Food and the Marine and two technical experts, one nominated by Teagasc and one nominated by the Department of Arts Heritage and the Gaeltacht.
The Implementation Committee will have a role under pillar 1 in examining cases where there may be disagreement over the allocation of minimum-maximum figures to individual farmers. It will also have a role under pillar 2 where there may be difficulty in getting the minimum 50% of active shareholders signed up to a GLAS Commonage Plan.

Tuesday 8 July 2014

GLAS, the New Agri-Environment Scheme

The Minister for Agriculture, Simon Coveney announced the details of the new GLAS scheme last week.  Further information was included in the Rural Development Programme sent to Brussels, (this document has been published on the Dept. of Agricultures Website, a link is provided below).  There are small, but significant changes from the previous proposals and while there is no fine detail on the options within the scheme, the structure appears more workable than that described in previous drafts.
The payment rates for the different components of the scheme are shown in the table below.  While it is not certain, I believe that the rates for Chough, Corncrake, Geese and Swans and Hen Harrier will only be available on lands designated as Special Protection Areas for these species.  Information on these can be found on the NPWS website. As regards the measures for Grey Partridge, this will probably be limited to the Lough Boora area in Co. Offaly, although it is possible that a site in North Co. Dublin may also be included.  The payment rates for Grey Partridge appear confusing as there is no area payment, only a linear one.  This is because that option will require the planting of lines of Kale within tillage fields, the payment of €2.10/ m is per m of Kale planted.  It is potentially a very generous payment for eligible farmers.  The option for Twite will probably also be restricted to a small area, the Mullet peninsula in Co. Mayo is the most likely but small areas in Sligo and Donegal may be considered as well.

Annex 2 GLAS Actions Payment Rates
Action                                              € per metre/year   € per ha/year    € per unit/year      € per m3/year
Arable Grass Margins
1. 3 metre margin                                    €0.35
2. 4 metre margin                                    €0.50
3. 6 metre margin                                    €0.70
Bat Boxes                                                                                                    €13
Bird Boxes                                                                                                    €6
Conservation of Solitary Bees
1. Box                                                                                                            €6
2. Sand                                                                                                         €45
Conservation of Farmland Birds
1. Breeding Waders                                                                €366
2. Chough Farm Scheme                                                        €365
3. Corncrake                                                                           €364
4. Geese and Swans                                                                €205
5. Grey Partridge                                    €2.10
6. Hen Harrier                                                                         €370
7. Twite A: Semi Natural/Semi Improved Grassland
Field Management Option                                                      €375
8.Twite B Improved Grassland
Field Management Option                    €1.50
Commonages - Collective Agreement                                   €120
Conservation of Private Natura Sites                                     €79
Coppicing of Hedgerows                      €2.20
Environmental Management of Fallow Land                        €750
Green Cover Establishment from a sown crop                      €155
Laying of Hedgerows                            €3.70
Low Emission Slurry Spreading (per m3 per year)                                                                    €1.20
Low Input Permanent Pasture                                               €314
Minimum Tillage TBC
Native Wild Flower Margin                  €1.40
Planting New Hedgerows TBC
Protection of Archaeological Sites
1. Tillage Option                                                                                         €146
b. Grassland Option                                                                                    €120
Protection of Water
Courses from Bovines                          €1.50
Rare Breeds (per L.U)                                                                                 €200
Riparian Margins
1. 3 metre margin                                 €0.90
2. 6 metre margin                                 €1.20
3. 10 metre margin                               €1.60
4. 30 metre margin                               €3.60
Small Woodland Establishment                                                               €0.90
Traditional Stone Wall Maintenance                                                       €0.70
Traditional Hay Meadow                                                      €315
Traditional Orchards                                                                                €23.50
Wild Bird Cover                                                                    €900

Commonage Issues
As regards Commonage, the situation is clearer than it had been.  Thankfully the Dept. of Agriculture have removed the 80% agreement requirement.  It has been replaced by a requirement for agreement from a simple majority of either active shareholders or from a group of shareholders holding more than 50% of the land.  This is a huge improvement and while there may still be local difficulties it is to be hoped that the soon to be established Implementation Committee will be able to recommend derogations where particular problems prove intractable.  The increase in payment for commonage from €75 to €120 per Hectare is also to be welcomed.
We can expect negotiations between the Dept. of Agriculture and the EU Commission to take a number of months.  During that period, work on developing the specifications for the scheme will proceed.  The specifications and the terms and conditions will contain the small print and fine details of how the scheme will operate, they may prove to be of greater significance to farmers than the broad brush strokes of the RDP application.
As regards commonage and GLAS we now know the payment rates, we know the minimum threshold for agreement among shareholders and we know that there can be only one GLAS planner for a commonage.   The issues that are not so clear include the following;
• Having one GLAS planner for a commonage makes sense, as it is obvious that there can only be one grazing plan for the commonage.  However the implications of this at farm level could be problematic. Do the Dept of Agriculture want one planner to write a commonage plan and go on to produce the GLAS applications for all the individual farmers or will that commonage plan be made available to other planners who then incorporate it into individual GLAS applications?
• When will the process of producing commonage plans commence?
• Will commonage plans have to be complete before individual farmers apply for GLAS or can they be incorporated later?
• Will the Dept. of Agriculture permit commonage plans or GLAS applications to be amended later in the contract period?

These are serious issues, the Dept. of Agriculture's collective approach to commonage management is a radical change and its successful implementation demands time and flexibility if it is to be successful. Insisting on one planner producing the individual GLAS applications is a risky step, the choice of planner is potentially a cause of disagreement at a very early stage in the process.  However it is also a strategy that will come under huge pressure in the case of farmers who have shares in multiple commonages.  For example, a client of ours has shares in eight different commonages, any requirement to have all the farmers (who wish to join GLAS) in all eight of those commonages to pick the same planner is unlikely to succeed and would most likely exclude this farmer from the scheme.  His absence would then threaten the prospects of the farmers in all eight commonages reaching the 50% threshold.  This is a senseless and pointless risk for all concerned, yes one planner should produce the grazing plan and facilitate agreements among shareholders, but individual farmers should then be free to choose their own planner to produce a GLAS application for their farm, an application which would of course incorporate the commonage plan.

As regards when the work on producing grazing plans should commence, everyone should appreciate that this will be a huge undertaking, involving possibly up to 4,500 commonage parcels and 7-8,000 farmers.   The Dept. of Agricultures target is to get approx. 150,000 Ha of commonage under GLAS contracts, this is very ambitious and will not happen overnight.  It is a huge task and it will take a considerable amount of time.  Remember the Commonage Framework Plans took over 6 years to produce and the planners in that process did not have the added challenge of trying to achieve agreement among farmers to contend with.

The process should not be rushed, but the time has come to tell stakeholders, what the Dept. of Agriculture expect from a collective agreement.   Decisions on how much time will be available to produce such plans and on how advisors will be trained to do this work are required as a matter of urgency.  These should be among the first items on the implementation Committee's agenda.  There is a considerable risk that training advisors will be left until the RDP comes into force in January 2015, i.e. when funding for CPD (Continuous Professional Development) come on line.  This would be a disastrous development for commonage farmers, as by then advisors will be fully focussed on producing GLAS applications (albeit for non-commonage clients).  The result would be a poor uptake by advisors and very poor entry rates into the scheme by commonage farmers in 2015.

Time constraints also demand that the period for completing commonage plans and getting agreement on same be extended beyond the closing date for applications.  As a minimum the issue must be treated in a similar manner to the Nutrient Management Plans, i.e. let a farmer join the scheme subject to the completion of the commonage plan and agreement on same before the first payment issues.  The issue of flexibility is also very important, the inability to amend AEOS applications was a major failing in that scheme.  It must not be repeated in GLAS. In commonage situations, no agreement can be considered as being permanent, changes in the circumstances of individual farmers will affect the operation of the agreements.  To be of value the agreements must be flexible enough to cope with these changes.  In particular farmers must be free to amend their agreement to deal with;

• Accession or withdrawal of participating farmers.
• Changes on individual farms necessitated by change of ownership, poor health, changing farm enterprises.
• To correct for negative but unforeseen impacts of aspects of the original agreement.

While facilitating amendments may make the management of the scheme more complex for the Dept. of Agriculture, a failure to allow for this will lead to the progressive unwinding of agreements and will undermine and discredit the scheme itself.

A lot of progress has been made and both sides of the debate are to be congratulated on getting us to this point. But time is short and any loss of momentum will have consequences for commonage farmers getting into GLAS in 2015.  The Commonage Implementation Committee must be put in place and must go to work immediately.  Training of planners on the production of commonage plans and an information campaign for farmers should commence as soon as is practical.  There is much to do and there still is time, if it is not wasted.