Farmers in England will not see their single farm payment until the second half of February at the earliest.

The news has emerged in the same week that a farming helpline reported calls were on the rise because of farmers becoming desperate about SFP delays.

The Rural Payments Agency claims it is still on target to begin full payments in February, but it is likely to be toward the end of the month.

“The position on payments remains as it has been for the last year – we are targeting the commencement of payments in February,” said a spokesman.

“Our plan is to definitively establish entitlements in the middle of the month (14 February) and begin payments towards the end of it.

There is still a significant amount of processing work to be completed; therefore we remain committed to keeping the industry informed over the next month on progress.

“We have also developed a contingency plan to make partial [60%] payments, and this option is being kept under constant review.”

The guidance on when payments are likely to start came as RPA chief executive Johnston McNeill appeared before the environment, food and rural affairs select committee to give evidence on the issue.

Mr McNeill was joined by junior DEFRA minister Lord Bach, who said that although he expected payments to start in February, he could not give a definite yes or no.

“There are technical factors at play which may mean we cannot meet the payments [deadline].”

The admission that there “is still a significant amount of processing work to be completed” has raised concerns with farm leaders and advisers.

Some stakeholders are understood to have been told that just 30% of applications have been fully validated.

Richard Wordsworth, the NFU’s single payment scheme adviser, said: “I think they are up against the wall to get payments out, but we are pushing the agency as an organisation for the RPA to do it as quickly as possible.

“There are still things in the system that need to be sorted out and we would urge farmers if they do get a call from the RPA to return it as soon as possible.

Then the RPA can’t blame the industry for any further delays.”

James Morrish, spokesman for the Rural Stress Information Network, said the common theme in recent calls had been the SPS.

“We have seen an increase in calls recently and a common thread is the payment delays.

Farmers feel that they don’t have an opportunity to forward-plan and budget.”

isabel.davies@rbi.co.uk