Opinion: Who gets the money – ‘active’, full-time, part-time or ‘armchair’ farmers?

Much of the focus over the past week or two has been on how much money will be allocated for the next Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) funding envelope (2021-2027). Alongside concerns over the actual amount of money available for CAP and, more specifically, for ‘direct payments’ (to farmers) is speculation over how such funding should be distributed.

Of course, we’re in an era of ‘convergence’ – where low (per-hectare) payments inch upwards and, alas, where high payments are being trimmed. We’re also in an era where the very raison d’être of farm subsidy payments appears to be a moveable feast (or a famine, depending on how the plight of agriculture will fare in upcoming budgetary talks).

Subsidy payments were once – we believed – principally about ensuring a secure and affordable supply of food for the masses across Europe. Now, some believe that such payments should be used to underpin the delivery of “environmental public goods” – to use a lofty, well-worn phrase.

That, of course, raises the question of what justification will underpin CAP monies in future.

Is the intention to subsidise and support those who actually produce (albeit with payments largely decoupled from production on a per-head or per-tonne basis and, instead, paid on a per-hectare basis)?

Or, alternatively, is the intention to simply make payments (on a per-hectare basis) to keep rural economies alive and to promote bio-diversity – paying little heed to what quantity of food is actually produced?

Many commentators and farm bodies are adamant that available monies should go to ‘active farmers’. This sounds reasonable.

However, defining an ‘active farmer’ into the future is not straight-forward; nor is ensuring that payments actually go to the intended recipients an easy task to enforce.

On-the-ground examples

For example, consider the instance of a land-owner who inherited the property – perhaps someone working full-time elsewhere whose parents were full-time farmers. If such a person ‘farms out’ all the work to an agricultural contractor – in a tillage enterprise, for example – should that land-owner continue to be deemed an ‘active farmer’?

Of course, if such a person was to be excluded from direct support payments now, one could argue that it might well preclude him or her from ever considering full-time farming in the future.

More controversially, if a land-owner simply ‘rents out’ the land – to someone else who not only establishes, sprays and harvests the crop but also shoulders all the risk associated with such an enterprise – who is there to ‘call foul’ if that same land-owner activates entitlements (BPS payments) in his or her own name?

It must be stressed that we’re not talking here about ‘genuine’ share-farming agreements, but rather more ‘murky’ arrangements whereby a land-owner might appear (to ‘officialdom’) to be playing a more involved role (i.e. named on some invoices for inputs and outputs) but, in reality, shoulders none of the risk, makes no agronomy/husbandry decisions and effectively receives a set payment (i.e. rent).

In any event, the advent of tax-free, long-term (land) leases has eliminated much of this, prompting many land-owners who don’t necessarily want to ‘farm’ to do just that – by opting not to farm, either in the fields or on paper.

All of this, again, underpins a well-trodden mantra that direct payments should only go to the ‘active farmer’ – the grower shouldering the work…and the risk.

Full-time vs. part-time

In a broader point, if a farmer earns the majority of his or her income off-farm, should he or she be entitled to the same subsidy payment (on a per-hectare basis) as his or her full-time farming counterpart?

If you answer ‘yes’, that would suggest that payments are there to subsidise (and underpin) production or even “environmental public goods” – on a hectare-by-hectare basis.

If you answer ‘no’, then it suggests that payments are – in the main – blunt (means-tested) income-support measures for farmers and, perhaps, a broader cohort of rural land-owners.

While farm bodies claim that they are keen to ensure that ‘active farmers’ get the available money, few would dare suggest that it should be ring-fenced for full-time farmers. Such a suggestion would, of course, be folly for any numbers-driven organisation.

The reality is that the number of full-time farmers will fall. Relying on just this cohort, there would scarcely be enough paid-up subscriptions to keep the likes of the Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA) afloat. Hence the need for such bodies to aspire to be all things to all people – be they ‘active’, full-time, part-time or – dare we say it – ‘armchair’ farmers.