Hardware obstacle to on-line forms?
By Alistair Driver
A LACK of computer power could be the biggest obstacle facing farmers who submit farm subsidy applications via the internet, according to early indications from a MAFF trial.
The trial, run by the Anglia Regional Service Centre at Cambridge, is being closely monitored by ministers as they decide how to implement plans to get farmers submitting applications electronically as soon as possible.
The pilot scheme began on Mar 8 and involved 221 farmers, who were selected at random from about 1000 that came forward. By the deadline for the submission of forms at the end of April, there had been 164 successful submissions.
"There were teething problems, but the whole point of a pilot scheme is to identify where improvements can be made," said MAFF deputy regional director, Barrie Stedman.
He said the trial illustrated the cost savings that could be made by MAFF through staff not having to input the data on the forms. The system will also speed the process up for farmers and third parties completing forms on their behalf.
In the trial, farmers were provided with "smart cards" which gave them access via the internet to archived subsidy forms, containing the previous years information about their own farm businesses. The form was designed to be "intelligent" so that it corrected basic mistakes made by farmers as they filled in this years details before returning it via the internet to MAFF. Two farm management software providers, Farmade and SUM-IT, also provided software to allow electronic IACS applications. Forty farmers used a third party, usually a land agent, to submit their forms.
The most common problems identified so far have been the difficulties with installing the Smart card and the poor specification of some participants computers. Another drawback, was that forms needed to support the base IACS form and field data, could not be submitted electronically.
Ross Haddow, who manages a North Norfolk farm, said the speed with which his computer sometimes operated when linked up to the internet was the biggest problem he faced during the trial. But, he said, the process was still quicker and easier via the internet.
The trial included a phone helpline which Mr Haddow described as "helpful and extremely well briefed".
Mr Stedman said the next step was to speak to all the farmers involved in the trial. "We are going to pool the information so we can map out the way forward for next year when the ministry will be offering electronic forms to all farmers." *