Proposals to ringfence 3% of the new Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) budget for young farmers, and to extend the period of time that the scheme can be accessed beyond the current five years, have been welcomed by Ireland MEP, Colm Markey, who sits on the European Parliament’s Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development.

As trilogue talks on a new €387 million CAP continue in Brussels between the parliament, commission and the Council of Agriculture Ministers, the Fine Gael MEP said that efforts to conclude CAP negotiations this week will be a challenge.

CAP progress

However, he welcomed the “significant” progress that has been made in relation to young farmers.

It is understood that an agreement has been reached on the Young Farmers’ Capital Investment Scheme, that would see 3% of the CAP budget allocated to young farmers.

This 3% is a compromise between the European Commission’s proposal to maintain the current 2% (at least) and the European Parliament’s 4% proposal.

Speaking to Agriland, the MEP said:

“It will almost definitely be 3% and the other significant thing to note about this is that there is scope to leave that scheme open beyond the five-year limit that exists today.”

The proposal, he said, could see the scheme become accessible to farmers up to the age of 40, although countries may use discretion regarding the exact length of time it will be open for.

“Currently, it is open for five years. But with the new proposal, for example, if you set up at the age of 26, you could potentially still benefit from the young farmer scheme up to the age of 40.”

According to the Central Statistics Office (CSO) Farm Structure Survey 2016, 7,400 farmers were under the age of 35 (5%), while 41,200 were aged 65 and over (30%).

“There is a massive need for generational renewal in Irish agriculture, so to support that would be critical. Any of these measures that help in this regard are very important.

“That is significant for the young farmer in Ireland today.”

Big ticket issues

The two big-ticket issues for the MEP relate to the funding of eco-schemes and convergence.

The percentage of Pillar I payments to be ringfenced for the eco-scheme component of CAP has still to be decided, and is understood to be a sticking point at the moment.

The exact percentage will be somewhere between 20% and 30% with the European Parliament preferring the latter figure. However, Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Charlie McConalogue is pushing for lower – ideally 20%.

“Regarding the eco-schemes, these have not been road tested yet, so I think the more prudent thing to do is stick to the lower level. The position that the government has taken makes sense to me.

“From the convergence perspective, there is the potential to undermine the viability of some farms and that is an important consideration, so certainly a modest change in convergence is what we are after.

“The government’s position of 75% is sensible.”

He said that the reality is that smaller farmers with substantial single-hectare entitlements, but with a small overall Single Farm Payment, could be badly hurt by convergence. And, particularly, it could impact the more marginal sectors, like the beef sector, he added.

But with the European Parliament taking what Minister McConalogue described as a “prescriptive” approach to the negotiations, and proposing 100% convergence, are they for moving?

“At the end of the day, there is going to have to be compromise. Every country must develop a strategic plan, and within that plan there is scope for various things to be considered.

“For example, the definition of an ‘active farmer’ is one such thing, and hopefully it will be the responsibility of each country to determine what that will be. There is scope for flexibility.”

Regulation versus reality

The negotiations thus far have attracted much commentary from the various Irish farming organisations and one common theme is that a pattern of greater regulation is emerging that may not necessarily gel with reality. What is the MEP’s view on this?

“I think that it is vital that the measures are practical and enforceable and that they work at farm level.

“At the same time we have to recognise that there is an environmental responsibility that famers have to embrace, and I think that most farmers are willing to do that.”