Opinion: Play it safe when it comes to EFA calculations

It has been two months since Defra used the Cereals event to give a broad overview of the greening rules that will apply from 2015. Since then there has been a bit of an information vacuum.

However, this week Defra secretary Liz Truss issued new guidance that fleshes out a bit more of the detail. It comes not a moment too soon.

If we are being positive, then there is good news in there for producers. For example, there is some much-needed detail on the management of fallow, including the dates it must be in place. The authorities have also decided the list of nitrogen-fixing crops eligible to be grown to meet the ecological focus area (EFA) requirement will also include crops such as clover.

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In addition, Defra has confirmed EFA buffer strips, which in England must be next to watercourses, need to be a minimum of one metre, and the same buffer strips can be used to meet both greening and cross-compliance rules.

Yet it is not all positive. Frustratingly, there remains a long list of questions about how hedges can be used to meet EFA requirements – and seemingly little prospect of any answers before October.

Defra has claimed it is still waiting for the European Commission’s view on gaps in hedges. Plus what happens, for example, if you only have control of one side of a hedge? And what are the implications if there is a ditch between the hedge and the arable crop?

Who knew hedges could be so complicated?

At a farm level it seems ridiculous that so close to the start of the Basic Payment Scheme, the answers cannot be more forthcoming. The message that it could take weeks, or even months, before farmers get all the answers they need is far from helpful – but reflects the bureaucratic nature of implementing a new scheme.

And farmers in England are not the only ones waiting. Growers in Ireland are also complaining about the same thing. Latest guidance from the Scottish government refers to issues where civil servants need further detail from the commission. NFU Scotland warned just a couple of weeks ago that farmers had been left to second-guess some of the EFA rules because the Scottish government’s plans lacked fine detail.

What is vital is that when it comes to inspection time next year, the delays in getting full guidance out are taken into account. It would be wrong to penalise producers for innocent mistakes given the flow of information – in all of the devolved regions – is so piecemeal.

Farmers must also rise to the challenge and do their best to meet the new rules, despite the difficulties this poses.

It would certainly be wise in this first year to have extra EFAs up your sleeve to cover any miscalculations and avoid problems further down the line. Better safe than sorry.

Isabel Davies is Farmers Weekly’s content editor

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