Young Ballydehob farmers sense of injustice

February 17th, 2015 11:55 AM

By Southern Star Team

Paddy Hickey

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PADDY HICKEY, a young suckler farmer from Ballydehob, writes about the injustice his family feels, particularly regarding the retrospective nature of Single Farm Payment penalties, which West Cork farmers are challenging in the High Court.

BEFORE Christmas 2013, we were cut over €7,200 in our 2013 Single Farm Payment (SFP). This was a mixture of ineligible land areas being taken off our claim (€2,400) and also very severe penalties on these (€4,800). We are being told that these may apply each year retrospectively back to 2009 – a potential liability of €30,000.

I, as a young enthusiastic farmer, find it very disheartening to be facing into paying off penalties of this degree for a minor-enough indiscretion, which was largely as a result of other factors. While the land that the department deemed ineligible is rough ground at present, which we will not be appealing, I would like to outline the background to the scenario that led us to this point.

Some parts of our farm would include rough land that would be used for grazing and was always burned every few years by my father and my grandfather before him, but the gorse burning dates were significantly restricted. This essentially prevented us from burning the ground in question and is the main reason why these areas have become somewhat grown over and now are deemed ineligible by the Department.

The payments we received in the SFP were earned through premiums received for raising cattle and not on the amount of green grass that was on the farm. It is really unfair that payments that we qualified for the same as any other farmer in the country then were changed into entitlements on ‘green’ hectares farmed, therefore putting farmers in marginal areas at a disadvantage.

It was very difficult for us to essentially cut ourselves money – which we depended on and that we had qualified for, the same as any other farmer in the country – because we have some rough ground on our farm.

I find the fact that the Department picked 2013 as the year to implement the full cuts disgraceful. It just so happens that it is also the reference year for the next CAP budget and means that, whatever cuts in eligible hectares we incurred this year, will be carried on in the next CAP budget (2015-2019).

So not only will we be paying for the ‘sins’ of the past, we will also be paying for it for the next five or six years and will unlikely ever get these hectares back. If they informed us of these ‘over-claims’ in 2012, or earlier, we could have tried to have some of the ground cleared for 2013 and be eligible for the new scheme going forward.

The penalties for over claims are shockingly severe. If those who had ineligible land lost the money solely for the hectares that were ineligible, or even with some form of a small penalty, that might be fair enough, but these penalties are savage. The threat of implementing these fines retrospectively could be potentially catastrophic for us and many others.

I find it quite hard to understand that the department takes no responsibility for having their aerial photographs up to standard back in 2009, but conveniently waited until 2013 (the reference year for the new CAP budget) to implement high-resolution maps. If the Department had clear mapping in 2009/2010 and identified these areas as ineligible, then the problem wouldn’t have developed and we wouldn’t be faced with these huge retrospective liabilities.

You might argue we should have taken these areas out ourselves, but we were trying to burn off these areas and couldn’t due to the early burning dates, and couldn’t afford expensive track machines to clear the areas in question. We also felt that, as the money was achieved through cattle raised on this land, we were reluctant to call the land ineligible, especially in a marginal and disadvantaged area like our own.

We are hearing that the Minister will not compromise on this issue as it only affects a small amount of people and doesn’t reflect the majority of farmers where no penalties were incurred. He tells us nearly 75% of farmers weren’t affected and a further 20% had a very small over-claim.

So it’s just about 5% of farmers that have been cut in a serious way – only a few hundred. Is that supposed to make us feel better?

These cuts were blatantly going to affect farmers in poorer, peripheral areas with marginal land and lower incomes – precisely the people that need the SFP. So Minister Coveney and his department in their determination to implement these measures are doing all they can to drive more people off the land in areas like South West Cork and Kerry – exactly the areas they should be protecting and trying to support.

Do we deserve to take the full brunt of this just because we are relatively small in number and live on marginal land? I don’t think so.

If every farmer took a small cut to offset the fine of approx €160m for the over-claim issue, would it really be such a terrible thing for farmers all over the country, particularly the big farmers on good land, to contribute a small amount that they probably wouldn’t even notice, so that the affected farmers wouldn’t be destroyed? This has been seen recently in Scotland and France where the government has chosen to pay the fine instead of crucifying farmers on marginal land.

We must impress upon Minister Coveney just how disastrous these retrospective penalties will be for us; at present he doesn’t seem to understand or want to understand.

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