Difficult year for agriculture in Northern Ireland

Speaking at the Northern Ireland agri-food conference in December, the former President of the Ulster Farmers Union, Harry Sinclair told delegates that 2015 was a tough year for the agricultural sector in Northern Ireland.

Former Ulster Farmers Union President Harry Sinclair told agendaNis agri-food conference that 2015 had been a very difficult year for everyone involved in Northern Irelands farming sectors.

Milk has been particularly hit with poor prices, caused by a perfect storm of excellent dairy production conditions in all of the worlds main dairying regions combined with an economic slowdown in countries such as China, he said. Adding to the specific problems faced by agriculture as a whole in Northern Ireland is the current strength of sterling. This is making our food exports extremely expensive in relative terms.

The introduction of the new Common Agricultural Policy support measures is also having a negative impact on many farm business incomes.

Sinclair confirmed that the growth targets agreed for the farming and food sectors in Northern Ireland remain in place. If achieved, they will see overall sales increase by 60 per cent in value by 2020, with employment levels across both sectors increasing by 15 per cent. However he warned that for these levels to be achieved, all of this must be underpinned by a sustainable primary production industry.

This will only be achieved if certain measures are put in place, Sinclair warned. These include the fair operation of the farming and food supply chain throughout Europe; the securing of new export markets for our food and the introduction of effective market volatility mitigation measures.

Other development targets for agriculture cited by Sinclair are: access to alternative finance sources for farmers and continued producer training in tandem with on-farm capital investment opportunities.

We also need the further implementation of livestock disease eradication and control programmes. BVD and Bovine TB must be key targets in this regard, stressed Sinclair. There is also a requirement for meaningful livestock genetic improvement schemes, covering the beef, dairy, pig and sheep sectors.

Sinclair believes that the European Investment Fund can be used to provide finance to farmers in Northern Ireland at interest rates that are more competitive than those currently provided by the pillar banks.

This is a theme that has been strongly espoused by EU agriculture commissioner Phil Hogan. Sinclair commented.

As for on-farm investment, he pointed to the £250 million Farm Business Investment Programme, which had been agreed by the Stormont Executive. This investment will, according to Sinclair be co-funded by national monies and the new Rural Development Programme for Northern Ireland.

Another priority for production agriculture, referred to by the Unions immediate past president, is the need to develop innovative land transfer arrangements. These will facilitate much needed improvements in overall farm productivity levels.

Already the Union, working in tandem with the Young Farmers Clubs of Ulster, has taken the lead on this matter. The coming months will see both organisations joining forces to launch an improved land mobility and longer term land letting service.

This approach has already worked well in the Republic of Ireland, helping to put older farmers with no successors in touch with younger producers keen to expand their farming activities. We also need to see the satisfactory provision of wider services in rural areas, particularly fibre broadband, to assist economic and social development.

Sinclair stressed that the upcoming referendum on the United Kingdoms membership of the EU will be of pivotal importance to agriculture in Northern Ireland. The stakes are very high, where this matter is concerned, he said. The implications for local agriculture of a potential Brexit must be made perfectly clear long before any vote is taken. If the United Kingdom votes to leave Europe, Northern Ireland will be the only region of the UK having a land border with the EU. The implications of this development alone are more than significant.

There is a bright future for agriculture and food in Northern Ireland but industry must continue to drive this agenda and government must continue to support it.

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