Ulster Unionist politicians Robin Swann MLA and agricultural spokesperson Jo-Anne Dobson MLA have held a meeting alongside two DARD officials with farmers in Glarryford Young Farmers Hall to discuss the difficulties they are having with their Single Farm Payments.
The meeting which was attended by upwards of 150 local farmers was addressed by two DARD officials Dr Richard Crowe, Head of Policy and Mervyn Johnston.
Commenting Jo-Anne Dobson, who chaired the meeting, said:
“A large number of farmers in the Bann Valley area have had their single farm payments withheld which is causing problems not only for them and their families but for local agricultural merchants as well.
“Farmers are approaching Robin Swann’s office in great numbers to complain about the obvious impact this is having on them and their businesses. Robin arranged this meeting for the farmers and I was pleased to be asked by him to chair it.
“The reason for this problem is that a large part of the Bann Valley area was used by the Department as a remote sensing or aerial mapping pilot scheme.
“The Department have confirmed to me that the aerial photographs didn’t match with the current maps. However, this issue affects some 1,139 SFP recipients and I was shocked to hear that they may not get payment until April.
“Robin and I know too well there have been a catalogue of failures by DARD with the mapping and we have always said we should move to upfront payments like they have in the Republic of Ireland. Remote sensing can get us there – but it has to be done professionally, and DARD have so far proven incapable of the job.
“Upfront payments would make a massive difference to the farming community across Northern Ireland. This payment trickles down into the wider rural economy and the impact of withholding the payment, as faced by those at the meeting, is having a devastating impact on the farmers affected and local businesses.
“The farmers in the Bann Valley area didn’t even receive a letter from the Department to make them aware that they were part of a pilot. Sadly, there will be more pilots to come this year and at the meeting I demanded that DARD write to the farmers who are in the areas selected for remote sensing this year to at least make them aware that they could be affected.
“Robin and I take away a considerable number of concerns from farmers which we will bring directly to the Minister and raise at the Agriculture Committee at Stormont.”
Following the meeting Robin Swann MLA said:
"In the last few weeks this issue has made up a high proportion of calls to my constituency office. I was absolutely amazed at the large crowd that turned out for our meeting in the Young Farmers Hall.
“This issue is putting many farmers, their families, local merchants and suppliers under extreme financial pressure. But, the lack of information has compounded these difficulties, and this frustration with the Department's processes was well echoed by many in the hall, and there are a number of issues that the Department must still address.
"This is the second year of aerial photography/remote sensing and the problems seem to increase rather than get sorted, so it is essential that they are sorted before next year. I have been informed that Northern Ireland is now divided into just under 300 areas and a number of these will be selected at random each year for this type of inspection. Until these issues are sorted I and my colleagues at the Assembly will not rest in holding the Department to account on behalf of farmer, farming organisation or indeed the merchant’s affected."