At the end of the best farming year many of us can remember, it is easy to get all righteous about the failings of ACRES. And, to be fair, it’s not that hard to find a few.
e will now have to do more to earn less than we did in GLAS. REPS was the first environmental scheme I joined and I earned more than £5,000 a year, 25 years ago, when that much money gave me real spending power.
Now it seems we are back to the attitude that the environment is terribly valuable, until somebody actually has to pay for it.
A couple of years ago we were led to believe that the new scheme was going to be results-based, rewarding farmers for real improvements in the environment.
Somewhere along the way that ideal was abandoned and we are right back to the crudest of money-in, money-out accounting. There will be no payments without evidence of costs incurred or income foregone.
For example, I sowed arable grass margins in GLAS and would like to keep them if I go into ACRES. Seven years ago I didn’t really know what they were for but they attracted me by being low-maintenance and paying fairly well.
I have been very impressed with the amount of plants and wildlife that have made them their home.
The original GLAS specification was to sow a mixture of mostly cocksfoot and Timothy, and these species have seeded themselves into this ground seven more times. Despite this, the ACRES rules say I must have invoices for the purchase of new seed to go into these margins if I want to retain them in the new scheme.
This waste of money and resources suggests only a passing acquaintance with the principles of a results-based scheme. Why not pay me if I have the required species growing, and don’t pay me if I don’t?
I have visited several farms in Co Clare that participated in the multi-award-winning Burren Life initiative, which has been outstandingly successful in restoring and protecting a very delicate landscape, through the enthusiastic engagement of both the farmers and the committed staff.
It has been adopted as the template for results-based schemes across Europe but now looks close to collapse as it is not compatible with the servile conformity to double-entry book-keeping that defines the new scheme. This really should not be allowed to happen.
Still, it has to be acknowledged that new scheme has improved some measures, and signs are there that farmers’ suggestions are not being ignored all the time.
Rather than specifying high rates of a small number of species, cover crops can now use low rates of an almost infinite variety of plants, provided the total amount of seed adds up to a full rate.
The cover crops will also, from 2024 forward, be allowed in fields with arable margins. Better late than never.
There is a substantial cost involved in applying for ACRES and it is not refundable if the application fails.
It looked like only farms scoring the highest points in the ranking system were likely to succeed and others were not inclined to apply; now many of the higher-scoring farms have decided it is not worth their while joining.
If grain prices were sure to stay at 2022 levels I probably would not apply either but this looks to be unlikely and costs are going to be much slower to fall.
So my decision on ACRES will be based on how easily I can integrate its measures into my existing practices and see if I can beat the system by getting paid more than it costs me to be involved. I will keep you posted.
Andrew Bergin is a tillage farmer based near Athy, Co Kildare
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