Monday, 16 February 2009

Agriculture NI: There Must Be A Better Way

Tonight hundreds of farmers from across the six counties are gathering outside Department of Agriculture and Rural Development offices in the hope of obtaining a small slice of the £6m funding made available through the DARD Farm Modernisation Scheme (FMS).

In strange scenes, farmers are taking part in overnight queues in the hope to be some of the lucky few who obtain the much needed but limited financial assistance. The support measures are being provided through the EU Commission Rural Development Programme and are made available though the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development’s FMS.

The available funding will assist some 1200 farmers modernise farming measures in order to promote better animal welfare standards and efficiency within the farming sector.

In some places the PSNI will be present just in case the situation gets tense as can tend to happen in these circumstances- this is to be completely expected. Farmers are having a tough time as it is and do not deserve this type of treatment from the Department. There has to be a better way.

This 'first come, first serve' approach to funding distribution is denying many farmers particularly the old and immobile, who simply can’t not sit outside all night in the freezing cold outside their local DARD Direct Office, their entitlements under the Rural Development Programme.

Yes there may be limited funding available and interest in the programme is considerably high but the way DARD have handled this issue is scandalous. The Department have known for some time that this situation was inevitable due to the limited funds being made available. It really is astonishing that they have done nothing at all to mitigate these circumstances. It is a total mess.

Last week I had an informal discussion with a friend who is a farming representative and he suggested that the current free-for-all setup under the FMS is simply not fair on farmers. Farmers are being pitted against each other in competition for funding and this is completely unethical. It is demeaning, discriminatory and farmers are deeply hurt by the actions and attitude of DARD.

He suggested that a lottery system would be much more appropriate in these circumstances and this would prevent the current scrabble that we are seeing with potentially ugly scenes outside DARD Direct Offices. Lessons must be learned from this fiasco.

I must agree with him, with limited funds available DARD has a responsibility to ensure that what funding is available is distributed as equitably as possible. Otherwise the funding will not reach those that really need it the most.

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