TANDRAGEE farmer, Tim McClelland, has welcomed a scheme that could help the agricultural industry during the Covid-19 crisis.
Economy Minister Diane Dodds said last week that farmers would be eligible to apply for the self-employed scheme in a bid to get essential support to deal with the challenges of the pandemic.
A DUP councillor for the Lagan River area, Cllr McClelland has owned and managed his family farming business since May 1997.
His farm is run as an all arable unit growing wheat, barley, oilseed rape and oats and includes four blocks of land over a 10-mile radius.
With his home farm overlooking Clare Glen just outside Tandragee, Cllr McClelland has also farmed on the Moygannon Road just outside Donaghcloney for over 50 years.
Covid-19 and the lockdown came into effect at the beginning of one of two very busy times on an arable farm.
At this time of year he starts to tend and look after crops and building toward harvest later in the year - fertiliser also has to be sown and crops need sprayed to keep them healthy.
Cllr McClelland said he is thankful, however, that during lockdown supply chains have been kept open.
He continued: “Visiting a farm supplier now takes a little longer with the precautions around social distancing in place.
“So a visit to collect crop spray that previously would have taken 20 minutes could now take double that time.
“That would be the main difference with the day-to-day running of the farm and also being able to spend more time with my family and juggling home-schooling.”
Representing Lagan River, which is a largely rural community, Cllr McClelland says farming has always played an important role.
And he says in these days of coronavirus lockdown with restricted travel and movement, the availability of local, high quality food on the shelves has never been more important.
He continued: “Farmers have been classified as key workers for this very reason. Feeding our communities and feeding the world is what we farmers do.
“Caring for the environment whilst producing good wholesome food is our only aim and quite rightly farmers are key workers.
“Our NHS workers are heroes on the front line. We farmers are part of the extensive team behind them.”
Cllr McClelland said since the crisis deepened, the new self-employed scheme for farmers is very much welcome news.
“Self-employed workers are a vital part of the economy. It was important that a mechanism was developed to support the self-employed during the Covid-19 crisis.
“Many farmers file tax returns with HMRC as self-employed. Therefore it is only right that farmers who meet the criteria are eligible for the self-employed scheme.”
He said farmers should therefore discuss the scheme with their accountants and professional advisors.
“As I understand it, HMRC will advise each individual whether they are eligible. Tax returns must have been submitted for 2018/19 and the two previous years with maximum profits of £50,000 per year two of the eligibility criteria.
“This scheme is very welcome and the eligibility of self-employed farmers is important. I fear some farmers may lose out if, for example, a loss was posted with HMRC as part of their tax return.
“I would encourage farmers to speak with their accountants as a matter of urgency,” he added.
The Lagan River representative also warned that the wider agricultural market prices for meat, milk, poultry, grain and pork could directly affect farmers during already hard times.
He continued: “Volatile prices and volatile consumer demand has the potential to directly impact farmers.
“With time the effects of Covid-19 on individual farming businesses will become clear.
“DAERA Minister Edwin Poots and his officials are working on a support package for farmers.
“Agriculture is a vital industry to the wider Northern Irish economy which must be protected. Failure to protect farming could mean there would be no industry left post Covid-19.”
Meanwhile, the Ulster Farmers’ Union has said farmers’ eligibility for the self-employed scheme is positive news
Commenting on the self-employed scheme, UFU President Ivor Ferguson said: “This announcement by the Economy Minister has given our farmers some clarity.
“Initially there was confusion as to whether farmers were able to apply for the self-employed scheme.
“Many of our members will be relieved at this news as Covid-19 has created a lot of challenges for farm businesses and all support is welcome.”