Thursday 31 December 2015

How did the commonage issue fare in 2015?

The last year has been a tumultuous one in the quest for a long term solution to the commonage issue.  Undeniably we are in a better place at the end of the year then we found ourselves at the beginning.  It might help all concerned to look back at the progress that has been made in 2015, not for the purpose of nostalgia but as evidence that progress is possible and that with goodwill on all sides, further progress in 2016 is a certainty.

  In January the situation appeared bleak, the Dept. of Agriculture and the Hill Farmers had different interpretations of what had been agreed between the Commonage Implementation Committee and a hill farmer’s delegation at their first meeting in Athenry. It was being suggested in some official quarters that the CIC was not authorised to make an agreement and that nothing discussed at that meeting could be considered as binding on the Dept. of Agriculture in any way.
This was a dangerous juncture, Ireland’s RDP was not yet agreed with Brussels and faith in the potential for direct talks between Hill Farmers and the Dept. of Agriculture to deliver a solution was at a low ebb.   Some of the key developments over the year that followed include;
  1. The publication by DAFM of a Guide to Land Eligibility.
  2. The initial round of BPS applications.
  3. First round of GLAS.
  4. The publication of the methodology for the production of Commonage Management Plans.
  5. The appointment of the first Commonage Advisors.
  6. Second round of GLAS applications.
Inevitably the list above looks like a series of actions by the Dept of Agriculture alone. I can assure you that this was not the case. Directly and indirectly other parties, in particular the INHFA (Irish Natura and Hill Farmers Association) and a small number of agricultural advisors had an important role in influencing the evolution in commonage policy.  That the Dept of Agriculture were open to new ideas and willing to engage, although not necessarily agree with other perspectives and viewpoints was refreshing and bodes well for the future.
It is not appropriate at this stage to mention any names or to go into details of the discussions that took place. However, it may be worth examining some of the key constraints that the different stakeholders had to operate under. These are still relevant. The difficulty as always in these circumstances is that everyone looks to their own problems and seeks a solution to address these. Nothing wrong with that but we must all remember that the other parties involved have a different set of issues and their vision of the future is one which resolves their issues. The danger is that all too often people do not appreciate that their actions or their negotiating stance, while perfectly logical to them may be interpreted very differently by other stakeholders operating under a different set of constraints. Let’s look at some of the constraints that affect the different stakeholders.

The Dept. of Agriculture, Food and the Marine.
First and foremost the Dept faced and continue to face a mammoth task in the roll out of the current RDP. This task is complex and multi faceted.  The aspects of it relating to commonage are lets be honest a minor component of the overall program. Commonage issues have to compete for resources, not just financial but also and perhaps even more critically for the attention of key management personnel and for the allocation of a limited IT resource. We must appreciate that the Dept. also has to engage with equally pressing issues in respect of the Basic Payment Scheme, Greening, Knowledge transfer, Young Farmers, TAMS etc. Other lobby groups have a keen interest in many of these issues and are equally forthright in their demands for progress and for fair and workable solutions. The officials dealing with all of these issues are in a no win situation. They cannot be expected to be experts on a technical level on everything that crosses their desk but they and the Dept end up being accused "of not understanding the reality on the ground". What other stakeholders have to appreciate is how could they understand everybody else's assessment of "reality on the ground".
The rest of us must remember that Dept officials are not only dealing with farmers and various lobby groups, but that they work in an environment where on many issues political consent is needed. This in itself takes time and cannot be taken for granted, senior officials are not plenipotentiaries, and they cannot make commitments that bind the Dept to a particular course of action. They must have regard to the decision making processes within the Dept and the Government. To further complicate things, the Dept of Agriculture have to report to the EU Commission, their room for manoeuvre on some topics is thus constrained by agreements already made with the Commission.  
I am sure some of the people within the Dept. of Agriculture, navigating this maze of competing demands and the constant battle to keep the show on the road must find the whole system extremely frustrating and indeed stressful. They must look at some of the demands made by third parties and say to themselves, do these people not realise that things could be a lot worse? Do they not understand that it is an achievement in itself that their topic of interest is even on the agenda?   

Farmers and their Representatives.
Farmers and in particular hill farmers operate in a very uncertain environment. They are exposed to a range of external factors that the person on a salary just cannot appreciate. Prices fluctuate, schemes are complex and often require professional assistance, unforeseen events such as flooding or a disease outbreak can wreck the best of plans. The new CAP meant a break with the familiar structures of the old; while some of the new schemes were progressive and beneficial such as the increases in the BPS due to convergence and GLAS, however improvements brought changes in administration, changes which many struggled to understand the significance of. 

Familarity with the old schemes had provided a certain comfort and any new regime was bound to bring doubts to the surface. However the delivery of these schemes, GLAS in particular was radically different from the past and confusion and differences of interpretation were unavoidable. Regrettably parts of the proposals were awkward and unworkable. Inevitably some people feared that there was another agenda involved.

The new schemes brought transaction costs with them. Costs are inevitably a big issue for farmers, while the Dept. of Agriculture would argue that transaction costs are covered in the design of the schemes, what is not addressed is that costs borne by farmers are inevitably front loaded. They must pay for a GLAS application, pay for a commonage management plan and wait close to a year for any return. Yes, they are compensated for the costs suffered but there are cash flow implications and for many this is an impossible burden. 

It is no surprise that farmers are often sceptical of new initiatives. They look at past policies such as compulsory destocking and they remember the waste and senselessness of their implementation at farm level. They are intensely aware of the poor age profile of hill farmers, the limited opportunities available to them outside of the farm and the difficulty in getting their voice heard. All of these things affect their collective morale, is it any wonder that farmers only place their trust in those who have earned that trust, is it any wonder that they are reluctant to embrace change because the Dept of Agriculture tell them it is a good thing.
Farmers have to look at the practical implications of proposals. Unlike other stakeholders they have to answer the questions about how stock will be sourced, fed, managed on the hill, how lambs will be finished and sold. They have to assess how issues like poor prices are going to feed into the rosy aspirations about increased sheep numbers on the hill? They are the ones who will have to work commonage management plans through, the ones who will have to improvise solutions and deal with internal disputes. In some cases there may be advisory support, in most, they will be on their own and they know it.    

With the roll out of the new schemes now at an advanced stage, it is the land eligibility issue that has become the core issue for farmers. If land is not eligible for payment than everything else is a moot point. For farmers, this is absolutely central. If GLAS CMP’s are to deliver improvements to commonage management then these cannot be nipped in the bud by an ineligibility finding.  The setting of an MEA (Maximum Eligible Area) within the CMP is an issue of enormous concern to farmers. It needs to be resolved if we are to progress further.
All of this colours the ordinary farmer’s assessment of the situation. The information that they need to make decisions on their flock, their farm and their livelihood is not available to them or where it is, it comes from a quarter whom some may suspect of having an ulterior motive. Farmers and their representatives have come a long way and other stakeholders need to appreciate this. But farm leaders have to be able to bring their people with them, if they cannot demonstrate to their members that engagement has benefits for farmers then their position is weakened.   They have to be able to deliver for their members and lest anyone forget it, their members are the people at the centre of all this. Other stakeholders would do well to remember this.

Farm Advisors;
Farm Advisors are not a single group. They are either part of the Teagasc/ FRS networks or they are private operators. I am going to resist the temptation to discuss Teagasc or the rationale behind their decisions to date. However irrespective of whether an advisor is private or is part of the Teagasc/ FRS network, they are part of a commercial operation. They have to make a profit or they are out of a job. This sounds harsh but it is the reality. Everything else in terms of the role they have to play is built on that premise. To stay in business advisors need to be able to plan their work, they need certainty, they need the tools to do the job and they need the support of farmers and Dept officials alike.    
In respect of the Commonage Management Plans, planning work schedules is not compatible with continued uncertainty and unrealistic or shifting deadlines. Fieldwork is not like working in an office. Short days and bad weather mean that work from Dec – Feb particularly on large sites is just not practical. Ideally this time could be used to finalise plans where fieldwork was completed last summer and autumn, unfortunately the software to do this is not yet available. Of course advisors have other work such as soil sampling to do but the net effect of the delay in the launch of the CMP software will be to push the completion of last summers’ work back till after the 2016 BPS scheme. This puts it into direct competition with the third tranche of GLAS and fieldwork for the remaining commonages. This is intensely frustrating and will lead to serious issues when another deadline looms later in 2016.
Just like farmers, advisors need information to make decisions but they also have to be conscious of the decisions, particularly on prices made by their competitors. Unfortunately many of them found themselves in a position where they felt obliged to get involved in Commonage Management Planning even though they lacked both the time, the training and the skill sets required and had no idea of what a plan would entail or what it would look like. For price, many were guided by what Teagasc had settled on and many have now entered into agreements which may be financially unviable.   
Advisors have to be professional in their work, if they make a mistake they will have to answer for it. While insurance cover provides some protection it is not a suit of armour and repeat claims risk putting an advisor out of business. The roll out of the first tranche of GLAS at the same time as the Basic Payment Scheme applications placed an impossible burden on advisors. You can be certain that errors were made. Thanks to the design of GLAS these cannot be corrected and will hang like a sword of Damocles for the schemes duration. The Dept. of Agriculture and farmers have no appreciation of the pressures involved. If the truth was known you have to be a bit mad to put yourself through it all.  

Where now from here.
First, things are a lot better than they were. Second if we can continue to build trust between the parties than a lot of the other issues will fall into place.  We are very nearly there and I believe the positions held by all sides are a lot closer than many appreciate. More needs to be done but not much more, the time for these last few steps is short, let’s try and make sure that the next few weeks are not wasted.  
If I could finish off with a short wish list for the New Year it would be like this.
  1. Re-assurance to farmers that the Maximum Eligible Area set in a CMP will be forward looking. That the MEA will be the area that the plan is designed to deliver and not based solely on current conditions. This is the key issue, if the plan is designed to deliver the MEA over the plan period and farmers get an opportunity to input into planning for that objective then everything else will fall into place. If this does not happen and farmers are trapped with an MEA based on current conditions then the plan risks becoming completely irrelevant.   

  2. Advisors need the tools to do the work. Completion of the software for Commonage Management Plans before the end of January 2016 is essential.  This cannot wait any longer without worsening the logjam that will develop next summer.

  3. In association with the launch of the CMP software, a comprehensive training seminar for Commonage Advisors must be provided. Training provided to advisors to date was to put it mildly, somewhat inadequate for the complex task involved. The time to organise this is short but that does not mean that planning and delivery can be rushed. Time is short but it will only run out if people let it. Delivery by early February at the very latest is a necessity. Agenda to include;
    1. Management Techniques for addressing eligibility issues.
    2. Planning Fieldwork.
    3. Confidence Building Measures and negotiating techniques.
    4. CMP Software.
  4. That’s it!
    Happy New Year to all.

Wednesday 30 December 2015

GLAS Payments will start this week.

First GLAS Payments Issue

The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Simon Coveney TD, has today announced GLAS payments will start issuing this week.
Minister Coveney said “This is another milestone achieved for the roll-out of GLAS, which has already proved one of the most attractive agri-environment schemes ever offered to Irish farmers. Interest in the second tranche of GLAS has again exceeded expectations, with over 14,000 applications submitted”.
A total of 17,625 farmers with a start date of 1 October 2015 will receive a first instalment payment of what is due for the period October to December. The total value of payments comes to just over €11.5m.
He added that he was particularly pleased to see such a proportion of Tier 1 and Tier 2 applications being submitted in this tranche, which together accounted for 80% of all applications received.
Note to editors
Certain actions are eligible for payment in 2015, farmers will see the full value of their GLAS contracts realised in 2016, the first full year of their five year contracts.