New Rural Development Programme gets Brussels’ approval

Northern Ireland Agriculture Minister Michelle ONeill hopes the new Rural Development Programme will put the wind back in the sails of the farming sector.

Agriculture Minister Michelle ONeill has confirmed the formal approval of the Rural Development Programme (RDP) 2014-2020 for Northern Ireland by the European Commission. This approval paves the way for up to £623 million in funding to become available for improving farming and agri-food businesses, protecting the environment and supporting rural development projects. The new measure will introduce schemes to help farmers improve productivity, contain costs and review their business models.

Speaking about the news, the Minister said: This is very positive news, not just for our rural communities, but for everyone in the north of Ireland. The new Rural Development Programme (RDP) will provide opportunities for our rural communities and farmers alike. Im confident that every single penny allocated as part of this programme will go towards creating rural jobs, developing our rural infrastructure and investing in the future sustainability of the farming industry. The programme will also provide fantastic cross-border initiatives focusing on tourism and further integrating border communities.

The approval of the new RDP is the culmination of over three years of work from my department and our stakeholders beginning in 2012, before the European rural development regulations were agreed. Since then, we have been working with our stakeholders across the agriculture, environmental and rural development sectors to develop a balanced programme that meets their needs while helping to support the growth of our rural areas.

Our engagement with stakeholders included a 16 week consultation period, a series of public information meetings across the north, and the formation of a Stakeholder Consultation Group to further guide programme development. I am grateful to all the individuals and organisationswho participated in this process.

Programme

In July 2014, Executive approval was granted for a Rural Development Programme containing support worth up to £623 million, made up of:

   Up to £257 million for improving the competitiveness of our farm and agri-food businesses, including up to £220 million for a Farm Business Improvement Scheme;

   Up to £249 million for protecting and enhancing our natural environment, including £100 million for an Environmental Farming Scheme;

   £80 million for broader rural development measures, including £70 million of support delivered through Local Action Groups.

This was the key message that she recently delivered to the inaugural meeting of the Supply Chain Forum. The event was attended by a high level representation of farmers, processors, retailers and other senior representatives, connected to Northern Irelands agri-food industry.

The challenges we face provide a sharp focus on the nature and structure of the industry, particularly its vulnerability to the volatility of the global market, she said. While the current crisis is caused by factors beyond our control, their impact can be influenced by what we do. While we produce world class food and drink, there are things that we can do better to ensure we are rewarded for the quality of our products.

Fragmentation

Michelle ONeill also believes that the new RDP will help galvanise the agri food sector as a whole in Northern Ireland. Supply chains have become fragmented within the industry, she said. This leads to insufficient margins for all. I want to see all players in the sector sharing equitably in the risks and rewards for their hard work.

There is a need to revisit the traditional understanding of a supply chain: to build strong relationships between producers, processors, retailers, the food service industry and other key players, such as banks and feed merchants; to improve transparency and communication; and to rebuild trust and confidence across the supply chain.

But, be in no doubt, I am committed to the long-term sustainability of the entire agri-food sector. I am working hard to open up new markets. I have secured the largest ever RDP funding which will provide farmers with the skills, training and investment that they need to improve how they produce; and provide processors with financial support to innovate.

I will continue to promote and represent the interests of the sector, whether at home or abroad. But it is only in partnership with the industry, that we can deliver the full potential of our agri-food sector.

The Ulster Farmers Union (UFU) has also welcomed the formal approval of the new RDP. The new RDP is of vital importance to the farming and rural community and offers an ideal opportunity to help drive for further advances of the agri-food industry and to support the Going for Growth strategy, said UFU president Ian Marshall.

Now that we finally have approval from Brussels, it’s important DARD ensures a smooth delivery of this programme. It is vital that the various strategic measures are opened as soon as possible and targeted to allow farmers and rural communities to benefit from these schemes.

Chairman of the Agri-Food Strategy Board, Tony ONeill has also welcomed the news regarding the approval of the new RDP by Brussels. This is another hugely important stage in the implementation of measures to ensure the long-term competitiveness and profitable growth of agri-food, Northern Irelands biggest manufacturing industry, he said.

RDP approval was one of the main planks in the Boards comprehensive Going for Growth strategic action plan to improve productivity and efficiency on farms and to accelerate growth in exports through greater innovation, efficiency improvements, higher skill levels and enhanced employment opportunities.

Discussion group

One of the key facets to the new RDP will be setting up the new farm business discussion groups, which it will facilitate. Farmers will receive funding through the new programme to encourage their participation in this measure. The discussion group concept has worked the world over in terms of delivering new thinking and innovation within. But above all else, the scheme now promised in Northern Ireland will encourage/force participating farmers to put in place a formal business plan.

This process alone will commit producers young and old to strategically think through their priorities for the future and arrive at a set of targets that are feasible for their farms.

It is now obvious that farming in Northern Ireland will have to become more efficient if it hopes to remain sustainable. The combined challenge of market volatility and the continuing reduction in EU support levels for agriculture makes this inevitable.

Long-term vision

And as farmers commit to setting out a long-term vision for their futures, it is incumbent upon food processers to take the same approach.

Looking ahead, there is every prospect that the new RDP will also create new opportunities for farmers and landowners to create woodlands. Michelle ONeill has confirmed that the new programme should open up innovative, grant supported, planting opportunities during the 2015/16 season. In addition, the important economic drivers for timber and wood production remain in place. These is strong commercial demand for timber and wood products allied to the fact that all timber sales are exempt from income tax.

The coming months should see all of the measures contained within the new RDP, which will be opened up for farmers, food companies and rural communities throughout Northern Ireland. Both Farm Minister Michelle ONeill and representatives from many of the agri stakeholder groups hope that it will help put the wind back into the sails of the farming sector. We should know if this turns out to be the case well before the end of 2016.

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