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Sunday, 10 August 2014

Planning for the Basic Payment Scheme and Greening

Farmers involved in specialist cropping, contract farming, block-cropping or diversification may need to take a step back and consider how things are best structured to ensure compliance with the new Basic Payment Scheme and Greening rules.

Being a farmer with non-farming interests does not of itself put you at risk from the ‘Active Farmer’ test. Only businesses that operate so-called negative list enterprises are caught. Those enterprises are airports, railway services, waterworks, real estate services, permanent sports and recreational grounds.
The latest guidance from the European Commission says that, as far as ‘real estate services’ is concerned, it does not consider farmers who let out farm cottages on their farms as falling into this category. The target is property developers and estate agents.
If your business does fall into one of the negative list categories, you will have to jump through one of three hoops to qualify as an active farmer. Two of these are admin-heavy income-related tests, but the third – demonstrating that agriculture is a principal object of the business – should be more manageable for businesses which have farming at their core. We await further details from Defra about what evidence will be needed.
Specialist cropping
Specialist crop growers who depend on taking arable land on rotation from other farmers can no longer ignore the impacts of farm subsidies. What used to be done on a handshake now needs to be documented. Parties need to make sure not only that the agreement passes muster with the RPA inspector (e.g. with regards to responsibility for cross-compliance and any environmental stewardship) but that it works between the parties. It is a commercial agreement, not simply a box-ticking exercise. At the very least it needs to set out what needs to be done and when, who is responsible for what, and what happens when things go wrong.

Broadly speaking farmers and specialist croppers have four basic options: (a) an FBT, (b) a contracting agreement, (c) a cropping licence, (d) a share farming arrangement.
The new definition of farmer under the Basic Payment Scheme is helpful. As well as someone who grows crops, a farmer is someone who keeps an area “in a state that is suitable for grazing or cultivation without preparatory action going beyond usual agricultural methods and machineries.” We are still waiting for final details from Defra but most arable farmers who have crops on their land should be able to fulfil that secondary definition.
JVs, contracting agreements and the 3-crop rule

One of the biggest concerns voiced by arable farmers is how Greening will impact where holdings which are contract-farmed fall just above the 3-crop threshold.  Equally, farmers who set up joint ventures to increase efficiency by block-cropping their farms are concerned about how to maintain that efficiency if each separate farm has to grow three crops again.
Share-farming may be a way forward. It will not work in every circumstance, but for some it will make more sense for the business that bears the greater part of the responsibility for managing Greening features to be BPS and greening payment claimant.


Points to watch

Entitlement transfer deadlines – the first of these, with transfers governed by the current SPS rules, is midnight on 19 October 2014. Any 2015 transfers will be subject to the new BPS rules, including its active farmer provisions.
Changes to eligible land definitions – watch in particular the distinction between arable and permanent crops for the purposes of calculating Greening obligations. Some crops originally excluded from the permanent crop definition for SPS purposes now fall under the permanent crop heading (e.g. asparagus, raspberries, artichokes).
Non-agricultural use rules – as under the present regime, land that supports a claim has to be eligible for the full scheme year, but with an allowance for an element of non-agricultural use as long as the area is predominantly used for agricultural activities. Defra has indicated that the rules are likely to be similar to what we have now. 
Principal objects of your business  if your business operates any of the ‘negative list’ enterprises, but agriculture is a principal object of the business, make sure official documents say that (e.g. company objects /VAT registration/annual accounts).
Distinction between BPS and Greening  – one for the professionals, but BPS and Greening are two separate payment schemes and both need to be addressed in contracting, tenancy and land sale/purchase agreements.