We had abandoned our lambing sheds, cow stalls and tractor cabs to be there. That the room was packed in the middle of a working day in early April spoke volumes about the importance of this gathering.
Eager-faced senior NFU BPS adviser Richard Wordsworth stood behind his lectern, ready to impart his knowledge: heads up for a “BPS workshop”.
It was significant that the workshop was not billed as “BPS 2016”. Many attendees had not yet received any BPS money for 2015 or had suffered severe financial deductions from their payments for “overdeclarations”.
Stephen Carr farms an 800ha sheep, arable and beef farm on the South Downs near Eastbourne in partnership with his wife Fizz. Part of the farm is converted to organic status and subject to a Higher Level Stewardship agreement.
But since they had not received an entitlement statement and no one at the RPA has answered the phone for months – preferring instead to hide behind an infuriating standard recorded message directing them online – like the accused in Kafka’s The Trial’, they can’t find out what they are under suspicion of.
Wordsworth apologised – Matthew Martin from customer communications at the RPA, who was supposed to be sharing the platform with him, was “inexplicably late”. But hardly had the ironic grunts died down than the aforementioned bureaucrat entered stage centre.
Looking fabulously nonchalant in his lounge suit, swept-back hair and carrying a plastic cup of coffee like only a Whitehall mandarin can, he could not have been mistaken for either a farmer (fleece jacket, no tie) or an NFU staff member (upright military bearing).
Martin hadn’t been with us very long when one of the audience asked why it was that, when he had recently tried to make an online BPS application, all he got on his screen was “no data available”. Martin nodded knowingly and asked: “Ah, yes, do you know the number of entitlements on the holding? Because, on very large holdings, we are getting quite a lot of ‘no data available’ results?” The farmer replied: “I farm 8ha”, to barely suppressed tittering in the room.
Martin shrugged that away and it was over to Wordsworth. He implored us to remove the “mental block” about last year’s BPS problems before we applied again this year. But my growing difficulty was that, the longer Wordsworth spoke, the greater my “mental block” about making a BPS application became.
It occurred to me that sometimes people can get so expert at something that they become the last person in the world who should try to explain it to someone like me. So, when he declared: “Fill in your application form as if changes you had requested to happen but haven’t happened had happened”, I started to panic.
My stomach tightened as he declared: “If you make a Horlicks online splitting fields and think: ‘I’ll phone the RPA for a paper form to wipe the slate clean’ – no, you won’t!”
My head started to spin as he continued, “You’ll wait five days to get a copy of the pre-populated data, which will include the data you have been fiddling round on the system”. Finally, I felt an intense nausea as he informed us: “The point here is that it is a live data extract at a fixed point in time – it is not a fixed point in the past. OK?”
No. Not OK. I’m alarmed and not even sure what all this means.
He briefed us about a library of RPA BPS guides and even educated us to the fact there were two codes for one crop. Or was that two crops for one code? By now, none of that mattered. I was running scared and in information-overload.
What Wordsworth doesn’t know about the BPS simply isn’t worth knowing, but I had only one thought as I left his workshop. I don’t care what it costs, but a land agent will be making my 2016 BPS application for me.