AS THE Assured Combinable Crops Scheme”s technical advisory group prepares to discuss incorporating further Voluntary Initiative elements, the NFU is urging growers to get their sprayers tested before the busy spring treatments window.

This year”s VI end-of-March target is to have half the UK”s sprayed area covered by the National Sprayer Testing Scheme. So far 3337 sprayers have passed their annual check, representing 28.8% of the area, says the AEA.

“We need a big push to make sure targets for the areas covered by tested sprayers and Crop Protection Management Plans are achieved,” says the NFU”s Neil Kift.

ACCS has always encouraged its members to participate in the NSTS and to make CPMPs, says chairman Tony Pexton. Whether those elements should become obligatory under assurance will be discussed in two weeks” time, he confirms.

Growers wishing to remain within ACCS for last year”s harvest had to be members of the VI”s National Register of Sprayer Operators.

“Any significant changes [for harvest 2005] would have to go out for consultation,” says Mr Pexton.

Progress towards the 900,000ha (2.2m acres) target under CPMPs has been good, reports Mr Kift, who oversees that element of the VI. Beyond the 200,000ha (494,200 acres) already qualified under LEAF audits, 445,000ha (1m acres) are “already in the bag”.

“We have had a flood of plans coming in. We received 130,000-140,000ha worth in only 10 days. But please keep them coming in.

” VI manager Patrick Goldsworthy of the Crop Protection Association describes the latest NSTS figures as “satisfactory” but echoes Mr Kift”s call for further participation. “I believe we shall reach the target, but I”d prefer to see it met early.” He reserves comment on whether the ACCS”s embrace should be extended to include NSTS and CPMPs. “But inclusion of NRoSO in ACCS and Genesis made all the difference and gained the VI political recognition and credibility.

” With over 19,000 operators already signed up the NRoSO is well ahead of its end of March target of 17,500, industry representatives recently told a House of Commons sub-committee assessing VI progress and the possibility of a pesticides tax.

Now, rather than later, really is the time to book up for a sprayer test, stresses Mr Kift.

The government”s final decision on the merits of the VI will be made as soon as 2006, he points out.

“If we haven”t proved we can make it work, we face the prospect not only of a pesticides tax but of even more time-consuming red tape.”