The new Agri Climate Rural Environment Scheme (ACRES) is lacking when it comes to budget size and flexibility for applicants, according to the Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA).

Michael Biggins, the association’s rural development chairperson, was speaking following a meeting with the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine.

“As it is currently proposed, ACRES is restrictive and complicated. It will inflict more compliance costs on farmers, resulting in less income,” Biggins argued.

“The scheme is designed to discourage people from farming. In order to achieve the average payment, farmers will have to commit more land to lower levels of production compared to previous schemes.”

Biggins called for all applicants to be accepted into the scheme, and for those applying in 2023 to be paid in the same year.

The ACRES programme will begin next year as part of the new Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), replacing the Green, Low-Carbon Agri-Environment Scheme (GLAS) as the main Pillar II agri-environment scheme.

“There is real concern about income if there is a lag between GLAS and ACRES, which will be caused by the tranche approach. Not accepting all participants into the scheme in 2023 is totally unacceptable,” the IFA rural development chair remarked.

“GLAS or ACRES payments are a critically important part of farmers’ incomes. It is essential that all applicants under all tranches receive a payment in 2023.”

Biggins called on Minister Charlie McConalogue to allocate additional money and to ensure all valid scheme applications are accepted, while also ensuring that “no farmer is left without an environment scheme payment for 2023”.

He suggested that this be done by rolling over 12,000 GLAS participants for 2023, or by paying an upfront payment in 2023 for ACRES participants.

Biggins also criticised the scheme for what he described as a “seriously curtailed” payment rate for low-input permanent pasture (LIPP).

“Payment rates and more flexibility for farmers to choose measures suitable for their farms, must be improved upon. The [maximum] payment rate of €10,500/farmer cannot be limited to just 20,000 farmers in the co-operation project [CP] zones.”

He also called for the farmers in the CP zones to be given greater flexibility to chose general actions, and argued that they should not be restricted to results-based measures as well as non-productive investments and landscape actions.

According to IFA Hill Committee chairperson Cáillin Conneely, farmers on designated land will be required to select an action in order to receive payment under ACRES.

“Farmers on designated land already have to deal with extra restrictions and compliance costs associated with the designations, and ACRES, as it is currently proposed, will add requirements to these farmers,” Conneely said.

“Designated land should qualify as payment without a farmer incurring additional costs and farmers should not be forced to accept additional requirements to receive payment.”

Rural development chair Biggins concluded: “If the scheme is to live up to expectations, payment rates for all measures must be improved upon and the payment rate of €10,500/farmer for the CP zones should also be available to farmers in the scheme’s general approach.”