URGENT action is needed to ensure continued Voluntary Initiative success, scheme backers said at Smithfield last week, as the Government”s pre-budget report offered support, but demanded clear environmental improvements too.

“With an election year coming, it”s vital farmers show the Government the VI can deliver results on the ground,” said Patrick Goldsworthy of the manufacturers” Crop Protection Association.

The pre-budget report”s carrot and stick message repeated Government backing for the VI concept (see panel), but stressed that the option of an economic instrument [tax] was still under review.

Progress towards next year”s targets is currently poor, just 202,000ha of Crop Protection Management Plans having been logged with the NFU compared with a Mar 31 target of 900,000ha.

Sprayer testing was faring little better, with 2357 tests done, representing 16.2% of the arable area, against a target of approx 8500 tests to meet the target of half the nation”s arable area.

In such a tricky season that was good, said Anne Abell of the Agricultural Engineers Association, which administers the scheme. “We”ve already tested more than half the machines we did last year, and last year most sprayers were tested from Dec to April.”

Despite the need for late herbicide treatments colleague Duncan Russell remained upbeat. “I am confident we”ll get very close to the target,” he said at Smithfield. More test centres are available, including several in areas that were previously uncovered.

Book now to avoid a last minute sprayer testing rush, Mr Goldsworthy urged. “What better Christmas present could you receive than a sprayer test, and for Boxing Day why not beat the kids to the computer and get that Crop Protection Management Plan done in a day?” he suggested.

With 18,854 members on the National Register of Sprayer Operators the Mar 31 target has been smashed, but operators need to earn development points.

“We”re well ahead of this time last year, with over 250 “H2OK? Think water” roadshows, each scoring six CPD points, compared with just 80-90 in 2003,” said Mr Goldsworthy. “People are interested in the water topic. Perhaps that could be the operator”s Christmas present – a half-day training roadshow?”

He hoped an announcement on the proposed container retrieval scheme was imminent. “It may be that Government is waiting to tell us about support funding when it launches its Waste Disposal Consultation next Thursday.”

He also drew particular attention to the wet season and the need for the right herbicide choices. “Check with your agronomist for the different tunes that can be played with product choice, rates and cut off dates.” Also check the VI”s herbicide decision tree at www.voluntaryinitiative.co.uk