A CHARITY which provides support and advice for farmers in rural County Durham experienced a 15 per cent increase in the number of queries it dealt with in 2013 compared to the previous 12 months.

Upper Teesdale Agricultural Support Services (Utass) was contacted almost 24,000 times last year, up 3,535 on 2012.

Project manager Diane Spark told the Utass annual meeting the main issues causing stress among upland farmers were keeping up-to-date with legislation and dealing with complex paperwork and IT requirements.

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“March, April and early May were extremely busy due to the advice and support offered to farmers with the preparation and submission of the Single Payment Scheme paperwork in time for the Rural Payment Agency mid-May deadline,” she said.

Mrs Spark said much time had also been spent ensuring farmers did not miss out on other payments they qualified for.

“A key part of our service is our breifings to members, which aim to give as simply and concisely as possible the essential information distilled from reams of publications and books from Defra.

“Failure to comply can be costly as support payments can then be subject to penalties. Our goal is to get all the support payments they are entitled to,” added Mrs Spark.

Membership of Utass numbers 1,074, covering 254 farms and 91 other households, agencies and organisations.

Utass chairman Dr Jonathan Nainby-Luxmoore said heavy snow in March and April had made 2013 a challenging year for farmers in upper Teesdale.

He said farmers would face different issues this year.

“2014 brings impending uncertainties surrounding Common Agricultural Policy reform.

“We will continue our efforts to ensure our member have the information, advice and support necessary to run their businesses in an efficient and compliant manner through these changes.”

He added: “We continue with a positive but flexible approach and as always a willingness to help wherever and whenever it is needed.”

The meeting was told Utass had received a grant from the Big Lottery fund which would cover 60 per cent of the charity's operational costs for the five years to May 2018.

However, that leaves charity with 40 per cent of operating costs to find each year along with funding for project work, training and services for young people.

Utass also relies on a team of volunteers to offer out-of-hours help 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

The AGM was told this had totalled 7,288 volunteer hours in 2013. Along with other voluntary time given by Utass trustees and helpers, this was worth almost £95,000.