Minister of the State at the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (DAFM), Martin Heydon has said that he and his colleague, agriculture minister, Charlie McConalogue are “pushing to the limit” to ensure more than 46,000 farmers are included in the new Agri Climate Rural Environment Scheme (ACRES).

The junior minister was responding to questions from farmers at a conference on the future of agriculture which was hosted by Fine Gael in Tuam, Co. Galway last night (Thursday, February 23).

Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA) Rural Development chair, Michael Biggins spoke from the audience and said: “We have a scheme… I’m talking about ACRES… 46,600 people don’t fit into 30,000 places and we have a serious problem with it.

“There are 16 and a half thousand farmers out there that need to get into a scheme. I think it’s vital that you [Minister Heydon] ensure that those families are looked after.

“They are people who cannot afford a gap scheme,” he added.

‘Pushing to the limit’ in ACRES

In response, Minister Heydon asked farmers not to underestimate the challenge it has been to provide extra spaces in a brand new scheme.

Minister Martin Heydon speaking at the Fine Gael conference on agriculture in Tuam, Co. Galway

Minister Heydon said: “I’m delighted that 46,000 farmers applied for this. We were told by some people ACRES would be a disaster and that we wouldn’t get 30,000 to apply. This is a nice problem to have.

“It is a challenge for us. Normally, if you remember AEOS [Agri-Environment Options Scheme] and REPS [Rural Environmental Protection Scheme]… the change-over… there was two or three REPS, not all farmers came out at the one time and AEOS was the same.

“It is not how you would want it that all farmers end, and it’s just the nature of the two-year transition period you have in the extended CAP [Common Agricultural Policy], that we ended up that every farmer finished in the agri-environmental scheme at the end of last year,” Minister Heydon added.

The minister of state added that despite it not being ideal, the DAFM is at the “cliff edge” and that it his ambition to “get as many farmers as possible” into the scheme.

He said the government wants to implement an agri-environment scheme that delivers more for the environment and more money than Green, Low-Carbon, Agri-Environment Scheme (GLAS).

“We are looking at every possibility inside [DAFM] to make sure that we can facilitate as many of those 46,000 farmers as possible,” Heydon continued.

“The last thing we want to do is be turning farmers away. Don’t underestimate how challenging that is in a year where we have all new computer schemes set up for everything.

“We just have to try and manage that and push our officials as hard as we can, and we are. I can reassure you that we are looking under the hood here and making sure that we are pushing this thing to the limit.”

The minister concluded by telling the gathering of farmers that the department is “very close” to making an announcement on ACRES.