It would be difficult to imagine a more shambolic exercise than the selection process chosen to award modernisation grants to Northern Ireland farmers.
By suggesting that funds would be paid out on a first come, first served basis, the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development forced farmers to camp outside departmental offices throughout the province in order to make sure of their place in the queue. But even then there was no guarantee that they would be one of the lucky recipients of a grant.
Some farmers queued for three days while others regarded the process as unseemly. One farmer’s wife said farmers were being forced to behave like beggars, lining up for a hand-out. The situation then descended into farce within hours of the offices’ opening to begin the grant selection process.
A spokesman for the Agricultural Commissioner’s office in Brussels said DARD’s procedure was against EU rules which branded the first come, first served method as unacceptable. There needs to be clear criteria to decide who is eligible for a grant.
While the Minister for Agriculture, Michelle Gildernew, denies that her department has broken any rules and insists that her officials have been in close contact with Brussels over the issue, this is a very embarrassing episode for her.
The sums of money being dispensed — £6m in the first tranche — are relatively small and no farmer will get more than £5,000. Indeed, only 1,200 farmers will benefit from the grants in this instance. Surely it must have been possible to devise a list of criteria against which applications for grants could be
checked without the need for farmers to queue up like shoppers desperate for a bargain in the sales.
There are some 48,500 people who work on the land in Northern Ireland. Given the small size of many farms, there is an evident need for farmers to modernise their farming methods to enable them to become as efficient as possible.
In all there will only be around £15m available under the farm modernisation scheme, a paltry sum given the scale of need. What is important is that the grant aid — farmers will have to put up £7,000 of their own money to get the maximum £5,000 grant — is directed to those farmers who will benefit most.
At a time when people are drifting from the land and farm gate prices are being squeezed from all sides — the big supermarkets use their buying power to cut farmers’ margins to wafer-thin levels — it is imperative that farming methods are efficient. Farmers also have to contend with ever changing animal welfare and environmental regulations, many of them emanating from Europe.
Once the Minister and her officials have sorted out this current farcical situation, they should then redouble their efforts to get more aid for farmers from the EU. Investment in farming is one way of kick-starting the rural economy, which is more necessary than ever in the current economic climate.
Northern Ireland’s farmers pride themselves on the quality of their produce. It is unfortunate that the same quality controls were not in evidence from the department when it came to dispensing the modernisation grants.