6 August 1999

Organic scheme coffers empty – as anticipated

By John Burns

THE Organic Farming Scheme for England, launched by farm minister Nick Brown in mid-April, has run out of money for this year.

Organic campaigners warned the government well before the launch of the scheme that the £6m budget for the first year would be inadequate to cope with the numbers of producers wanting to convert to organic production.

The Soil Association said the governments announcement this week, that the money had now been spent, would deter the thousands of farmers who were seriously considering conversion. It was also a blow to those who had already made the decision and who might now have to wait until next year before any funding might be available.

MAFF has advised farmers who have recently completed registration with one of the organic organisations, but who have not yet applied to join the OFS, to do so within the required three months of registration with a sector body.

Farmers who have not yet completed registration should, says MAFF, consider whether to carry on with the process and submit an OFS application or delay it to enable them to apply when further funding becomes available. Subject to Parliamentary approval, that is expected to be on Apr 1 next year.

But MAFF also points out that "Year two payments on applications already receiving funding, and applications approved in principle, will have first call on this funding".

The schemes budget for next year is £8.5m. But the Soil Association says more than half of this will be needed for second year payments to those accepted into the OFS to date.

Since the OFS opened, more than 450 producers, farming some 42,000ha (103,782acres), have applied to join.

Another 53 have applied to transfer to it from the previous Organic Aid Scheme.

Helen Browning, leading large-scale organic farmer and chairman of the Soil Association, predicted that announcement would put the brakes on thousands of farmers seriously considering converting to organic agriculture.

She also accused government of having its priorities muddled. "It seems ironic that, while supporting the biotech industry to the tune of £52million, [junior farm minister] Mr Morley declares insufficient funds for organic and other agri-environment schemes. Surely the public has made clear by now that they want organic food, not GM technology."

Phil Stocker, Soil Association producer services manager, emphasised the blow it would be to farmers who had spent time and money making the difficult decision to convert, only to be told they will have to wait another eight months for any sort of funding.

Brussels drops beef retention plan

CONTROVERSIAL plans for a three-month retention period for the new beef slaughter premium, to be introduced next year under the Agenda 2000 reforms, have been dropped in Brussels.

Instead, farmers wishing to claim the new subsidy, worth up to k80 (£53) a head by 2002, will only have to keep their cattle for two months, the same as for beef special premium.

The change of heart follows last-minute interventions by the UK and Irish farming unions, who feared a three-month retention period would discourage producers from marketing their stock when they were ready.

"This is a big plus for us, especially since it means the beef special premium retention period will not now be extended to three months," said NFU livestock adviser, Kevin Pearce. "We must now ensure other aspects of the scheme are integrated into the UK system of liveweight and deadweight selling, so as to cause the minimum of disruption.

We will be talking to auctioneers, buyers and MAFF imminently."

There is some concern that cattle will have to be slaughtered within one month of the retention period ending, and where this might leave a producer who has claimed the premium, sold the animal, but then finds it is not actually killed.

EURO-BRIEFS

&#8226 A SURVEY of Dutch pig herds has revealed a number of welfare shortcomings, according to the Meat and Livestock Commission. Over 50% of units did not meet stall size and space requirements, while poor lighting and lack of straw were found in a significant proportion.

&#8226 ENVIRONMENTAL group Greenpeace took its anti-GM food campaign to Rome this week, erecting a giant corn cob sheathed in a condom outside the ministry of health. Italy has been singled out as one of the countries in Europe with the highest number of GM trials.

&#8226 IRELAND is lumbered with massive stocks of meat and bonemeal, a side-effect of the Belgian dioxin crisis. Previously, large quantities of MBM were exported to Belgium. But lack of demand has led to a price collapse, with no willing takers, according to reports in the Irish Farmers Journal.

&#8226 CONFUSION reigns in Belgium over dioxin. Last week the public health ministry put out a statement saying another 200 farms had been closed down, after the discovery of a new source of contaminated animal feed. That has since been denied by the Belgian council of ministers.

French aim to aid poorer districts

THEFrench government plans to limit direct aid payments under Agenda 2000, and to redirect the money to small farmers and rural development.

A statement from the agriculture ministry in Paris reveals how it intends to raise FFr1bn (£100m) in this way and to match it with another FFr1bn (£100m) from state coffers. The money will be used to finance "territorial farming contracts", designed to keep people working in poorer areas.

"The modulation of direct income aid will be based on two criteria – the total amount of aid and employment levels," the statement explains.

A sliding scale will be applied to claw back aid from farms above a certain size. This will start on holdings receiving more than FFr250,000 (£25,000) in subsidies, rising to a maximum scaleback of 20% on farms receiving more than FFr700,000 (£70,000). Scaleback may be reduced by taking labour units into account.

the number of employees working on the farm, including family labour.