Opinion

Is the underspend associated with farm schemes delivering for anyone?

The underspend that can characterise various farm support schemes has been an issue debated on for many years now, across different governments.

Money is set aside for successful applicants of these schemes and is never actually used by the applicants for one reason or another – tying up funds that could be put to good use elsewhere.

Apart from the headline numbers associated with these scenarios, there was also the immense cost associated within the public service when it came to getting these schemes over the line in the first place.

Adding to my frustration is the fact that these circumstances continue to prevail today.

And it’s a direction of travel that is wholly driven by Ireland’s farm lobby groups.

Schemes at risk

It’s too early yet to predict if there will be an underspend, where the fodder transport support measure is concerned. But the tillage component of the Targeted Agricultural Modernisation Schemes (TAMS) looks certain to be an obvious underspend candidate.

This set of circumstances reflects the fact that cereal growers do not have the money to spend on investment projects at the present time, irrespective of the grant aid that may be available.

So why was this reality not factored into the debate when it came to agreeing the scheme in the first place?

I get the sense that Ireland’s farm organisations are on a crusade to have schemes of one sort or another introduced merely to garner a favourable public image from their members.

Subsequently, they will have the brass neck to flag-up their endeavours as master strokes of lobbying competence long after we all have forgotten that the uptake for the measures in question was very patchy.

Across in the UK, Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) Secretary of State Michael Gove keeps talking about agriculture delivering for the “public good”.

By this he means that farmers will be encouraged to become more environmentally-friendly and conservation-focused, once Brexit becomes a reality.

What a load of hooey! When will policy-makers learn that only viable farming businesses will be in a position to deliver a countryside that ticks all the boxes for everyone?

A way forward

And this is a reality which should be reflected in Irish farm policy moving forward. There is a growing expectation that individual member states of the European Union will have more flexibility to introduce bespoke farm support measures, courtesy of the next reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

Under these circumstances one would hope that the Irish Government would be in a position to deliver real levels of financial support to production agriculture.

The onus would then be on farmers to invest the money they receive back into their businesses. If producers choose not to take this approach then they run the very real risk of being stripped of all support funding for a prolonged period of time.