Opinion: ‘BPS night’ draws a big crowd

I joined a crush of farmers crammed into the function room of a local pub. It was a hastily arranged meeting called by my local NFU branch. 

“More chairs!” shouted a distressed late arrival.

“Move forward at the front!” chirped someone at the back.

“We should have hired the village hall!” said another, to a ripple of laughter. 

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One of the younger attendees, the NFU local branch chairman, gallantly gave up his chair for an older member forced to the front by a restless sea of bodies. 

The cause of this massed gathering on a cold Tuesday evening in late March?  Getting farmers out on this scale right in the middle of spring lambing, calving and a busy arable period requires real pulling power. Must be a hustings for local parliamentary candidates for 7 May. Don’t be silly, this evening’s guest had more pulling power than any politician. This was BPS night.

Yes, that’s right, folks, there may still be nearly two calendar months to go before the 15 June application deadline but whisper “basic payment scheme” down a country lane and you’ll soon be surrounded by more British farmers than you can throw four billion euros at.

Our chairman welcomed everyone and quickly quietened the impatient rabble by handing over to wise sage oracle and fount of all knowledge (actually introduced as “Your NFU county advisor”) who was there to give us a BPS update. Never was what a man had to say anticipated in such biros-and-notebooks-at-the-ready awe. 

For those in doubt, his first remarks only confirmed how privileged we all were to be granted an audience. Apparently, land agents advising farmers on BPS (presumably charging about £125 an hour) were now ‘overbooked’. Biros quivered above blank pages with ever greater anticipation.

And then we were off. We had an extra month to make our BPS applications but we were “back to a paper-based application”.  Forms would be issued in April. Some would be pre-populated forms, but fields would be listed in a different order than under the SFP so it wasn’t too easy for anyone. Hedges could be included in EFAs (thanks to NFU lobbying) but whatever we did ‘don’t use hedges in EFAs’ because it was hideously complex to do so. 

Due to the late abandonment of online applications, there would almost certainly be delays in BPS payments in England. “39,000 farmers” with relatively simple applications who farmed permanent pasture would be “fast-tracked”. The code for permanent pasture has changed, though, from PP to PG, for reasons only a bureaucrat could understand.  

He then reminded us that we all now had to be “active farmers” to qualify for the BPS. Pens were already writing furiously, but now seemed to find an even more industrious tempo. Gosh, we were all suddenly such active farmers. 

He mentioned a Young Farmer Payment for anyone who controlled “51% of a farm business but was under 40 years of age”. Pens suddenly halted. A glance around the room at the average age of those present explained why. We heard about drop-in centres for completed forms and further BPS guidance from the NFU over the coming weeks. 

And on went our county advisor, presumably like his equivalent in other counties the length and breadth of the country; eloquent, knowledgeable, succinct, patient with his listeners, but unbelievably depressing in his subject matter.

Until at least 2020, we are now faced with an increasingly complex area payment subsidy that is driving farmers crazy, at the same time as we all become ever more dependent on it for our living. 

See you at the next meeting, then. Get there early if you want a seat.

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