5 April 2002

Electronic system worth a shot

With the May 15 deadline

for submitting IACS forms

fast approaching, Andrew

Blake asks whether it is

worth doing it electronically.

Despite last years debacle

it seems big improvements

to the system mean it could

be worth the effort this year

FOR anyone with a reasonably modern computer and access to the internet, it is certainly worth trying the so-called e-IACS system. That is the firm opinion of Gill Mitchell, director of farm consultants Lines Mitchell.

The Newcastle-based firm specialises in helping farms deal with legislation and subsidies. "It costs you nothing to give it a go."

No-one, not even its administrator the Rural Payments Agency, claims that last years stab at encouraging farms to qualify for Arable Area Payments via computer was a success. But the RPA is keen to see more people taking up the idea.

The governments 2001 drive to get farmers to send their details electronically to qualify for AAP under the Integrated Admini-stration and Control System attracted about 10,000 enquiries. But it produced little more than 800 fully completed forms.

Having to obtain the required proof of identity, a digital certificate, by visiting a local Chamber of Commerce proved a big stumbling block, especially with foot-and-mouth restricting travel.

"The fact that the agents system was only properly up and running by May 2 was also a problem," says Mrs Mitchell. "We got quite jittery."

But tremendous improvements have been made since last year, says colleague Neil Wilkinson. A key breakthrough is that digital certificates may now also be obtained on-line at www.equifaxsecure.co.uk.

For users working through a standard 56k modem without management software allowing the required information to be uploaded from field records, the exercise can be time-consuming, he admits.

"Until broadband becomes commonplace, working on-line is a bit tedious unless you only have a smallholding or your farm is not particularly complicated."

However, many people in agriculture, not least DEFRA, believe electronic communication is the way ahead, says Mrs Mitchell. "Its quite exciting that our industry should be the first to submit information like this on-line.

"I love it because it does all the calculations for you. It wont let you enter anything wrongly and the form wont be accepted until it is complete."

The facility to amend details right up to the May 15 deadline is another big advantage over the traditional hard copy method, she adds. "You also get an immediate response. We have submitted 26 forms already this year for clients and the acknowledgements came back straight away."

Unlike some others, the firms LMeNTRY software package, based on the XML internet protocol, allows farm details to be loaded directly into the on-line IACS form, she adds.

Neil Unitt, of Farmplan, expects the firm will offer a similar option by 2003. "There were certainly a lot of problems last year. As soon as we are comfortable everything is running smoothly we shall allow our customers to upload IACS information."

George Dunn, of the Tenant Farmers Association, who sits on the RPAs users forum believes e-IACS has plenty going for it but has reservations. "The main problem of digital certification has been resolved, and farmers who are reasonably computer-confident should seriously consider doing their IACS returns on-line.

"It can save a lot of time, particularly if the information can be imported directly from other computer programmes."

If using a third party for assistance consider the extra cost and liability implications should things go wrong, he warns. "You need to know who is responsible should the data submitted be incorrect or corrupted.

"Another potential problem is that you have to be on-line all the time you are working on the form."

Mrs Mitchell acknowledges users must be on-line to make entries, but a new facility makes it easier to save and return to partially completed forms. "That was a bit of a glitch last year." &#42

Lukewarm reaction

Enthusiasm for e-IACS is only lukewarm on farmers weeklys barometer farms. Chris Salisbury in Somerset sums up the general feeling. "Ill be willing to have a go when I know it will work." In Essex, Peter Wombwell is leaving the job to agent Simon Gooderham, who says many farms remain nervous about sending private information over the internet.

Technical tips

When moving from page to page it is important to use the electronic forms own navigation buttons, not those in the users own browser, says Mr Dunn. The latter, which bypass the system, can lead to data loss. Users of older browsers, such as Internet Explorer 4, also need to upgrade to a newer version before attempting to use the system. However, the Equifax web-site acknowledges many users are experiencing difficulties with version 6, and neither Equifax nor the governments Gateway support Netscape 6.