Almost a year on from the extended closing date for applications, just 30 projects have been approved under the Tier 2 scheme.
However, despite the fact that more than 120 farmers are still waiting for a decision on their application, the department says that progress to approve more applications is "steady".
It was initially expected around 150 projects would have been supported by the scheme.
Many have criticised Tier 2 for its apparent sluggishness, with most applicants now waiting more than a year to hear whether their plans have been successful.
Several farmers have said the situation has made it "impossible" for them to plan ahead in terms of stock numbers and cash flow.
The deadline for applications had been extended from February 24, until March 10, meaning that it’s just two weeks shy of a year since the last application was received.
Before Christmas it had been confirmed that five farmers had already pulled out of the process - with the number now rising to 12.
To date 25 applications have been rejected.
Tier 2 is the larger capital element of the Farm Business Improvement Scheme (FBIS) with up to £250,000 (€283,000) available for a range of farm infrastructure projects.
Ulster Farmers' Union (UFU) deputy president Ivor Ferguson said the organisation had been "inundated with calls" asking for updates on the issue.
He said: "The UFU has also previously asked for DAERA [the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs] to consider price increases. Quotations submitted to DAERA in good faith for Tier 2 of the FBIS [Farm Business Improvement Scheme] are now a year out of date and prices have risen considerably - and this has to be corrected by DAERA."
£3 million of funding approved so far
However, a department spokesman said the number of projects approved is "steadily increasing".
The spokesman said: "The funding approved of £3 million (€3.4 million) will help lever capital investment in rural communities of at least £7.6 million (€8.6 million)."
The applications approved so far include:
- The construction of temperature-controlled crop stores;
- Free range poultry units;
- Robotic milkers;
- Egg grading machines;
- Mushroom compost filling equipment.
Responding to a report published on Monday on AgriLand, in which a young Co. Down dairy farmer said his business' profitability had been jeopardised as a result of entering the scheme, a spokesman for DAERA said: “Tier 2 of the Farm Business Improvement Scheme – Capital is an important and beneficial scheme which helps improve the competitiveness of local farm businesses by providing financial assistance for capital investment.
"It supports transformational change on farms in future-proofed, fit-for-purpose, modern infrastructure and equipment that improves resource efficiency and delivers sustainable growth."
'A comprehensive and rigorous process'
He added: "The assessment of Tier 2 applications is a comprehensive and rigorous process, in proportion to the significant amounts of grant (public funding) involved and investments undertaken.
"We need to ensure that proposals are financially viable, justifiable and will not cause environmental damage.
To enable as many applicants as possible to remain within the assessment process, the department has given applicants the opportunity to clarify aspects of their proposals.
The spokesman noted that in some cases, the process includes technical matters regarding construction and integrated equipment.
"For the same reason, the department has also given applicants more time to progress through the planning process to allow for further engagement with the planning authorities and NIEA [the Northern Ireland Environment Agency] as appropriate.
"DAERA has written to individual applicants to update them on the progress of their applications and is seeking clarification on any specific issues that still need to be addressed prior to their application proceeding further.
"The department started issuing letters of offer to successful applicants on October 31."
The future of Tier 2
At the moment there is still no timeline in place for the end game of the scheme.
The spokesman said: "The assessment process for Tier 2 applications is ongoing and selection panels will continue to take place on a regular basis over the coming weeks.
Until the assessment and selection process is complete, it is not possible to be definitive about the timescale for issuing all letters of offer.
A second Tranche of Tier 2 is planned, but the spokesman said it would not be possible at this stage to be specific about the timing.
"Decisions on any future Tranche 2 will be subject to a review of the lessons learned from Tranche 1 and funding availability," he added.
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