Hundreds of farmers from across Northern Ireland who camped outside government offices through the night in a bid to apply for European grants today hit out at the “unfair” system.
The modernising grants are being allocated on a first-come, first-served basis, but the funding package — worth £6m — will only allow 1,200 farmers to benefit.
This has led to the farmers hoping their long wait will pay off when the eight regional Department of Agriculture offices open today.
Some farmers have been waiting since Sunday lunchtime.
In Dungannon applicants started to camp out on Monday and a few hours later queues had formed in offices in Coleraine and Ballymena.
And farmers also began the long wait outside government offices in Newry, Armagh, Downpatrick, Enniskillen and Omagh.
Successful applicants can secure up to £5,000 which will provide 40% of the cost of improvement in farms.
Up to 100 farmers were patiently queuing outside Kilpatrick House in Ballymena this morning in their bid for a share of the modernisation scheme.
The queue snaked all the way from the doors of the Department of Agriculture into John Street and around the block into Albert Place.
Men, women and children spent hours and even days camped out with winter woollies, flasks of tea and deck chairs to secure money from the first tranche of the £15m scheme.
Heading the queue was Marcus Adams who has a mixed farm at Cloughmills.
He wants to use the money to buy an autostart generator for animal welfare reasons.
“If the electricity in the poultry unit goes off, the generator will come in by itself and keep the birds from smothering.
“There are 46,000 farmers in Northern Ireland so most won’t get anything. People that came after yesterday morning have a slim chance of getting.
“We need this money because DARD always brings in new rules on animal welfare. We have to spend money just to keep up with regulations,” he said.
“There is not enough money in the animals to pay for the improvements — the supermarkets have us hammered into the ground.”
Dorothy McCullough from Lisburn began queuing at midnight to get money for perforated slot mats for her herd of cattle.
“Hopefully we will get money after queuing all this time,” she said.
And Brian Campbell, a beef farmer from Glenavy added: “They should have opened the office a bit earlier. It could have been opened at 8am — most of the civil servants are on flexi- time.”
Ulster Farmers’ Union spokesman Joe McDonald said that it would have been fairer toopen up applications for two weeks and randomly chosen successful applicants rather than having the first come, first served system.
“There is a strong case to put more money into the Farm Modernisation Scheme. As it is 40% funding it is very good for the local economy,” Mr McDonald said.
“That £15m will generate £38m of direct economic activity in rural areas. The more economic activity we have at the moment the better.”
The cash injection is aimed at improving animal welfare and farm efficiency. But the first come, first served system has been criticised by many farmers who say those who cannot queue lose out.
Pat Diamond from Kilrea said she couldn’t believe the number of people waiting in Coleraine.
“If it’s quality of opportunity, what about the fellas that are out working today that are unable to queue?
“Imagine having to queue like a beggar on the street.”
She told BBC Radio Ulster she would not let any member of her family queue for the grant.
“If everyone’s application is submitted via postal, via counter, then it should be collated and one drawn out, or a random selection. This is not equal the way this is working.”
Bert Wilson, a UUP councillor for West Tyrone and farmer, also criticised the system as “unfair”.
“There will be ones who will get, and probably some who will not and there is no fair play in that,” he said.
It is understood a small number of postal applications set to be picked at random will be accepted by the department. However, the majority of the grants will go to farmers who travel to the department's offices.
Agriculture Minister Michelle Gildernew said the first-come, first-served system of issuing grants was fair. She added that two more sets of grants will be handed out to farmers.