Belfast Telegraph

Amid fiscal woes, the future looks rosy for agri-food

By John Simpson

Agriculture Minister Michelle O'Neill is planning to play a key role in strengthening the local economy.

Whilst other parts of the regional economy are facing the pain of recession, food production - from farm to processor and on to customers - is expanding and farm incomes are enjoying a four-year recovery.

The total income for farming in 2011 was, at just over £308m, over 50% higher than three years earlier. After a big fall in farm incomes from 1995 to 1998, there has been more than a decade of improving results. The minister has ambitious development plans.

"We have recognition from the Executive in the Programme for Government that agri-food is doing well. The real work begins now as we prepare a strategy for its further development. A new chairperson for the Agri-food Strategy Board, Tony O'Neill, has been appointed and the board will prepare a report by the autumn which will examine the challenges faced by the industry, the targets for the future and will track the way forward to 2020," she said. "The world's population is increasing and there is an ever expanding market for our food. We must recognise the potential that we have and work towards it."

Whilst the number of farm businesses is still falling (partly because of the age structure of today's farmers), there is a reassuring increase in the number of young people gaining better and higher educational qualifications for these sectors.

"Our agriculture classes are over-subscribed which shows that young people recognise that there is a future in agri-food. Student numbers in the College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE) rose to nearly 1,600 this year, up by 14% in the last decade. This is a major reversal of the former trend where too few young people were following in the family tradition to take agri-food jobs."

She then added: "The review of plans for the agri-food sector is timely since we are now entering negotiations on the possible reform of the European Common Agriculture Policy (CAP)."

The minister has concerns about maintaining the level of funding from the EU for farming and also ensuring appropriate flexibility in the use of the EU funds. She will try to retain a continuing Single Farm Payment (SFP) system, possibly moderated to focus on active farming, along with scope to encourage more new young entrants to farming and provide support for expanded research and development applications.

The efforts by the European Commission to include stronger incentives to make farming 'greener' are causing some concern. The minister is sympathetic to the objectives but is unhappy with some of the proposed procedures.

The current SFP arrangements inject nearly £300m each year into farm incomes. In the CAP negotiations, there will be different priorities from the devolved administrations sitting alongside less enthusiastic conservative ministers as part of the UK negotiations.

Because of faulty claims for SFP - partly caused by inaccurate maps - there is still a controversial bill to repay to Brussels. "We are continually working to improve our maps for next year's applications. The debate on whether, and how much of, SFP funds should be repaid is still being worked through," said Ms O'Neill.

The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD) is also responsible for leading rural development policies. A £16m fund has been earmarked by the Executive and shortly the minister will be announcing an action plan to implement improved policies and services for the rural communities.

One particular aspect of policy now on the minister's agenda is the move of DARD headquarters from Dundonald House to a location away from Belfast.

The minister says: "We have a great opportunity to move jobs out of Belfast. The move is going to happen by 2016. I hope that we'll be able to make a recommendation before the end of 2012."

Business prospects in agri-food are challenging but optimistic!


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