Set-aside deadline eased over floods?

5 January 2001

Set-aside deadline eased over floods?

By Johann Tasker

THE government is under pressure to relax rules for this years set-aside scheme because flooding has left many farmers unable to meet the requirements.

The set-aside year starts on 15 January. By that time, “green cover” is required on land destined for set-aside unless crops were still in the ground on 01 October, 2000.

Many farmers have been unable to plant green cover because of heavy rain and floods across significant parts of England and Wales.

Unless the government extends the 15 January deadline, flood-hit producers will suffer the double whammy of losing their crops and their set-aside payments.

As another wave of rain swept the country, the National Farmers Union claimed that the dire weather could have cost farmers up to half a billion pounds.

About 13% of the national potato crop – some 822,200 tonnes on 19,500ha – has been destroyed or remains in the ground at a possible cost of 97 million.

Both the cereal crop and the sugar beet crop have suffered similar fates.

The grain harvest in the coming year could well be several million tonnes lower than in 2000 because of poor conditions. This could cost up to 300m.

In East Anglia, about 10% of sugar beet is still in the ground, with up to 23% unharvested in other areas.

Damage to buildings, the need to re-seed flooded grassland and additional operating costs mean the total losses could be as high as 500m.

The NFU has produced the figures following on-going survey work since November and an audit of the worst-hit farmers to find out how they are coping.

They reveal that losses on individual farms range from a few thousand pounds to 250,000, with many farmers fearing for the future of their businesses.

NFU president Ben Gill said: “These figures confirm our worst fears … some farmers have had almost their entire businesses wiped out.”

Mr Gill said he was “deeply worried” that the suffering would continue beyond this year because many farmers have been unable to plant crops.

NFU officials will go through the figures with agriculture minister Nick Brown as soon as possible. The figures will also be taken to Europe.

The union has already won flexibility for farmers with flooded land in the administration of the support schemes under the Common Agricultural Policy.

But it wants more flexibility to help farmers as the bad weather continues.

The government is understood to be sympathetic towards extending the set-aside deadline, because of the exceptional nature of the recent floods.

Chancellor Gordon Brown said two months ago that the floods were “causing a huge amount of damage and the government stands ready to help.”

His comments were widely interpreted as an indication that help could be on the way even though they were subsequently played down by Whitehall officials.

Some concessions for flood-hit farmers were announced in November.

Junior farm minister Elliot Morley said farmers with flooded land could put it all down to set-aside to make sure they did not lose out on their subsidies.

But much sugar beet and potato land destined for set-aside still has crops in the ground, necessitating a further relaxation of the rules for those growers.

A senior MAFF official said the government intended to grant producers more help. But extending the deadline must first be negotiated with Brussels.

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