Some Donegal farms not qualifying for ANC payment ‘based on a desktop exercise’

“It was somebody sitting behind a desktop that did this and obviously hasn’t been on the ground to see the situation.”

Payments worth €185 million under the 2020 Areas of Natural Constraint (ANC) scheme began to be issued last week to 86,000 farmers. But, for a tillage farmer in Castlecooley, Burt, Co. Donegal, he feels it was an “unjust decision” that led to his farm not qualifying for the payment from 2019.

Speaking to AgriLand, David Buchanan says his son, Ian, who is 24 and will be taking over the farm, “doesn’t stand a chance of survival”.

‘We’re on the wrong side of the valley’

“Whatever was done, our farm was knocked out while farms across the valley with much better quality land and higher output and income have qualified. We’re clearly on the wrong side of the valley,” Buchanan said.

Buchanan qualified for the payment up until 2019, following a review of eligible areas in which Buchanan’s land no longer qualified.

He feels that it was “somebody sitting behind a desktop that did this”, who “obviously hasn’t been on the ground to see the situation”.

“Around 65% of the land has significant stoniness. The farm is edging toward the mountain – the land is wet and poor quality.

“In the area, the farm would be considered small, just over 100ac. We’re lucky if we get 2t an acre – two and a half at the most.”

Buchanan appealed the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine’s decision to exclude his farm from the payment.

Having appealed the decision, the department told him that a review of his land was done. This found that the townland forming the basis of his appeal had “satisfied the 60% threshold” for the following criteria: low temperature; soil moisture deficit; unfavourable texture and stoniness of soil; shallow rooting depth; steep slope; and limited soil drainage.

However, it was in the ‘fine-tuning’ process that the land was deemed ineligible.

He has now taken his complaint to the Office of the Ombudsman.

“The impact of this is going to be serious for my son. I’m getting the pension this year; but for Ian the farm is small and it’s down the line this is going to have serious consequences,” Buchanan continued.

“This is a desperate start for him in farming. He needs every penny he can get to stay here – I don’t know why he’s taking over the farm at all.

We feel lost – it feels like discrimination.

Sinn Féin TD for the Donegal constituency Pádraig Mac Lochlainn said his “difficulty with how this is playing out for some farmers in Donegal is that it looks to me that it’s based on a desktop exercise by department officials”.

“They’re looking at townlands and district electoral divisions and they’re not going out on the grounds to verify the position they’re taking,” he told AgriLand.

“If you take someone in David’s position, and you look down on what he rightly refers to as some of the best land in Ireland that is near him, they are benefitting from the ANC – it seems absolutely extraordinary.”

‘It is a devastating blow’

Deputy Mac Lochlainn visited Buchanan’s land and said he is “astonished that he missed out considering he’s from the same parish as these other qualifying farms with great land”.

“I’ve been speaking to a number of farmers about this in Donegal and this has greatly impacted them. When you’re so financially squeezed in farming in so many ways, the ANC and the connective payments are just so essential to staying on the land.

“We’re trying to get older farmers to make way for younger farmers. He wants to give his son a fighting chance and in fairness to him, it’s not a selfish interest, it’s about his son,” he continued.

What really alarms me is the fact that this was appealed – I would have thought somebody would go out and look once this was appealed. For some reason the department hasn’t been willing to leave the computer.

“I would be amazed if officials went out on the ground and actually stood over this decision.”

The deputy added that with the Minister for Agriculture, Charlie McConalogue, being from Donegal, “there’s no doubt he will have to revisit this issue”.

‘I don’t feel any townlands should be excluded’

Turlough Slaney, regional executive for the Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA) in counties Donegal and Monaghan, reiterated that “this was totally done from the desk”.

He told AgriLand:

“They haven’t taken the time to go out and have a look at the land types they are affecting by this decision.

They’re not taking a number of issues into consideration that impact Donegal – namely the excessive rainfall that farmers are subject to, that really means that wherever they are farming in the county they are at a disadvantage; [and] also the fact that there’s a shortened growing season compared to some of the rest of the country.

“I don’t feel any townlands in Donegal should be excluded at all. This isn’t just about the ANC payment, we’re worried that further down the line, the same approach will be taken for other schemes.”

Slaney said that if it “comes to taking this to a higher level – European – then so be it”, but that they haven’t reached that stage yet.

“We will not be dropping this,” Slaney said.

We do a lot of talking about encouraging new blood into the industry and young farmers but when that vital funding is being taken away from them, it’s like removing the lifeline.

“It makes the situation so much harder to just survive. We’ll be pushing this hard – it’s a payment that farmers in the north-west can’t be doing without – no matter what their farm type or what part of the industry they’re in.”

In a statement to AgriLand, the Department of Agriculture said that in advance of payments under the 2019 ANC Scheme, Ireland was required under EU regulation to change the approach used to designating land as eligible.

The statement continues:

“Up to that point, Ireland had been identifying eligible areas using a range of socio-economic indicators such as: family farm income; population density; percentage of working population engaged in agriculture; stocking density; etc. 

“From 2019, eligible areas were instead required to be designated using the following list of bio-physical criteria: low temperature; dryness; excess oil moisture; limited soil drainage; unfavourable texture and stoniness; shallow rooting depth; poor chemical properties; steep slope.

“Where a townland displayed one or more of the listed criteria at a level above the threshold of 60%, the townland was identified as constrained.  

“It was then necessary, under the regulation, to ‘fine-tune’ these constrained areas.

Nationally, some 700 townlands that would have previously been eligible were no longer eligible under the new designation. Over 2,000 townlands became eligible under the new approach and were eligible to receive a payment for the first time in 2019.

“In relation to Donegal, the main reason townlands were deemed ineligible was by reference to the fine tuning criteria, in relation to arable land cover and stocking density.”