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Balmoral Show: Executive gambled and lost with its agriculture policy, says RUAS chief

by Richard Halleron

The last Executive got its farming strategy badly wrong, the chief of the Balmoral Show organisers has claimed.

Royal Ulster Agricultural Society (RUAS) president Billy Robson said that expanding the industry, instead of stabilising it, in the face of a crisis-hit global market was a mistake.

He added that stabilisation must now be made a key priority for agriculture and warned that a failure to do so would be disastrous for the economy and Northern Ireland as a whole.

"I expressed severe doubts three years ago about the wisdom of growing our farming industry against the backdrop of volatile global commodity markets," the RUAS chief said.

"Agriculture is now in crisis. Farm incomes may fall by a further 15% this year. The signs are that the EU support monies received by farmers in 2016 will not cover the commercial losses.

"All of this points to an industry in deep trouble. The financial hardship impacting on farmers is having a devastating effect on towns and villages. Entire rural communities are in crisis. Rather than push for growth, the Executive must stabilise all of our farming sectors.

"If this is not achieved, the production base required by our food processing companies will be lost. And this will have major implications for the economy."

But Tony O'Neill, chair of the Agri-Food Strategy Board, claimed the growth strategy launched three years ago remained on course. "The turnover generated by our food industry has increased by £1bn per annum in the interim period, and the industry continues to account for 20,000-plus jobs," Mr O'Neill said.

"I fully recognise the pressure on farm incomes at the present time. However, the new Farm Business Improvement Scheme will deliver £250m for production agriculture in terms of much-needed capital development support over the next number of years."

Mr O'Neill also confirmed that 50 new export markets had been secured on behalf of Northern Ireland's food industry during the past three years.

"We want to build on this for the future," he said. "The decision has also been taken to establish a single food marketing body for farming and food.

"The business plan for the new body is currently under development, but the plan is to push ahead with an official launch later this year."

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