According to the reformed Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), farmers with more than 15 hectares of arable land must set aside 5% of their land as an Ecological Focus Area (EFA), or else they risk losing up to 30% of their Basic Payment Scheme subsidies.
To meet CAP requirements, which take effect next year, farmers can leave land fallow, sow crops to catch runoff, plant nitrogen-fixing crops, use buffer strips or plant hedges. Paterson, who was replaced last week by education minister Liz Truss in a cabinet reshuffle, warned that farmers who opt for hedgerows can expect direct payments to be delayed because the government has to digitally record and verify them.
“We will do whatever we can to get payments to you on time,” he told cereal grain industry members in Cambridgeshire, England, last month. “But given the nature and complexity of such mapping exercises, we want to ensure that farmers understand now that a consequence of our decision around hedges is an increased risk of payments being made later than usual. We have worked long and hard to square the circle, but it’s impossible to do that and keep everyone happy.”
He also acknowledged the frustration of having to take 5% of good land out of production, adding that he worked to make the new system as simple as possible for farmers.
“We won’t be bringing in a certification scheme for greening and we have simplified cross-compliance. On capping of basic payments, we are required to reduce payments to the largest farms but have set these reductions at the minimum level allowed by the EU regulations,” he said.
“But there are some areas where we didn’t get what we wanted. On greening, we did not win on crop diversification and the Ecological Focus Area requirements have come with too great an administrative burden.”
Crop diversification not suitable to UK farming landscape
Indeed, the new rules require that farmers who cultivate more than 30 hectares (74 acres) of land rotate fields between at least three different crops. Farmers will be restricted on the amount of area that can be devoted to their largest two crops.
Paterson called this measure “unworkable”.
“Crop diversification might be a good idea in some countries where there is a problem with monocultures across huge holdings, but we don’t have the same landscape here as they do elsewhere in Europe,” he said. “But applying uniform rules to the unique structure of the English countryside is a real challenge. The success of our agri-environment schemes demonstrate what can be achieved when you make these environmental decisions at a national level.”
Paterson added that he wrote to European Commissioner Dacian Ciolos about the “serious problems” of the crop diversification rule and other issues, such as the need additional flexibility surrounding implementation of the EFAs. “A lot of these rules are simply not practical for the landscape of the UK and the way we farm,” he added.
Rural group: Not a good time to shuffle Defra leadership
In the wake of Paterson’s departure from the ministry, UK rural group Northern Farmers and Landowners Group expressed concern about leadership changes during a critical time for farmers.
“Truss will need to hit the ground running as Defra is now working to a very tight timescale to implement the administrative changes required to operate the new Common Agricultural Policy support system, complete with a complex new computer system,” Angus Collingwood-Cameron of NFLG told the Journal. “Given the vital importance of the implementation of the new CAP to the farming and wider rural community, it does not seem an ideal time to change the leadership of Defra.”