'Farming and politics can both be very volatile'
Ahead of next month’s Balmoral Show, former politician John McCallister tells Lisa Smyth about his work in helping fellow farmers get ready for the future
John McAllister is best known for his work as an MLA and his attempts to overhaul politics in Northern Ireland with the creation of NI21.
However, following the collapse of the party and the subsequent loss of his seat in South Down in 2016 where he ran as an independent, he has returned to his first love of farming.
He is now playing a part in safeguarding the future of agriculture in Northern Ireland through his role as manager of the Land Mobility Programme, which helps retiring farmers find people to take over.
It's run by the Ulster Farmers' Union and the Young Farmers' Clubs of Ulster (YFCU), with funding from the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs.
It is originally due to run for two years.
John (46) says: "The thinking behind it is that we link up young people who want a career in agriculture with older people who are thinking about retiring, or who want to take a step back and there is no identified successor. I took up the post in September last year and there is already an obvious requirement for the service.
"It is a completely new role and it was created because the average age of farmers in Northern Ireland is 58.
"Land mobility has always been an issue - only 6% of farmers are under 35 years of age, while 26% are over 65 and almost half of farmers in Northern Ireland over the age of 50 have no identified successor.
"It could be that they don't have any children, or it could be that none of their children are interested in taking on a farm.
"Gone are the days when the oldest boy would just inherit the farm no questions asked and that brings with it its own sets of problems as we are seeing now," he adds.
"In addition, a lot of land in Northern Ireland is being under-used and we need to bring in new technologies and new investment to address this and this scheme is one way of doing this.
"The potential for growth within local agriculture will only be fully realised if every available acre is farmed efficiently and sustainably."
John has been travelling around Northern Ireland addressing farming representatives and individual YFCU groups to publicise the Land Mobility programme.
He is also planning to visit the College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE) later this month to address students.
He says his experience as a politician has proved to be useful.
"I am speaking to a range of different groups and promoting the idea and the thinking behind it," he says. "My background in politics has probably helped in I have some experience and knowledge of facilitating different viewpoints and how we manage that.
"It may be that Stormont doesn't look like there is any attempt to facilitate different viewpoints at the moment, but it was when I was there.
"I suppose that throughout the different roles I have held, I have picked up different skills and different abilities that I can bring on with me to new roles.
"We are trying to recruit older landowners, we want to encourage people who may not be looking to retire immediately, but may be thinking about it in the next couple of years, to start thinking now about what they are going to do.
"We want to build up a database of older farmers and younger generations who are looking to get into the industry and then bring them together to explore possible opportunities.
"Collaborative arrangements can be the key to delivering growth within our farming sectors while also addressing the age imbalance.
"There is no commitment by signing up to the database, no-one is under any obligation to agree to anything they don't feel happy with.
"Every possible solution can be explored and it is unlikely that any one agreement will be the same as any other, as they can all be tailored to suit the individual requirements of the people involved.
"We will bring people together and facilitate conversations between the parties, to find out what they want to achieve, whether that be through farming partnerships, shared farming arrangements or leases.
"Our friends in the Republic of Ireland have good tax incentives for longer term leases and that is something we would like to see up here as well.
"So far we have nearly 160 people on the database and that is roughly 50:50 split between well-established farmers wishing to look at new land management options and those wanting to develop new career opportunities within agriculture.
"I am actually very pleased with that, I am encouraged by the uptake and interest because it is a very important issue.
"We want to bring new people into agriculture and introduce more long term thinking into the industry."
Before he got into politics, John - who was appointed to the Human Rights Commission last August - worked in partnership with his parents on the family farm near Rathfriland. "I did it full-time for 17 years before I went into the Assembly," he says.
"I stopped dairy farming about the end of 2009 for various reasons - my father had passed away that year, I had got married and I was becoming more and more involved in politics."
While John took a step back from the industry during his time as an MLA, in the background he maintained a keen interest in agriculture.
And he says he was always conscious that politics may not make a lifelong career.
"I was always aware that farming and politics were similar in that they were both fairly volatile," he says.
And despite a range of well-documented rows during his time as a politician, John time and again demonstrated his ability to keep his cool - even in the most emotionally charged situation.
Nowhere was this more obvious than in March 2012 when he played the role of midwife after his wife, Jane, went into labour a week early.
John, now a father-of-three, delivered his second child, Harry, on the bathroom floor while paramedics rushed to the scene.
His decision to maintain the family farm proved sensible and it was back to farming after losing his seat in the Assembly two years ago next month.
John, who was first elected to the UUP in 2007, left the party in 2013 in protest at the decision to appoint a joint unionist candidate to fight a by-election in Mid Ulster.
He set up new party NI21 with his former party colleague Basil McCrea in June of that year in a bid to create an alternative to what the pair regarded as green and orange-tinted politics in Northern Ireland.
However, he fell out with his fellow co-founder and resigned from the party the following July, but remained in his Assembly seat as an independent.
He subsequently lost the seat in the Assembly elections in May 2016. Despite this, he said at the time that he had no regrets about leaving the UUP.
"Of course it would have been an easy option to just have kept my mouth shut, but I prefer to do what I believe in rather than taking the easy option," he says.
And now - looking back on his tumultuous time at Stormont - he is equally as content with his decision and career path, particularly in light of the current political vacuum.
But he says it is imperative that the Assembly resumes as possible.
"Most people, whatever sector you are in whether that be agriculture or health or education, recognise that we need decisions to be made," he says.
For example, we need the Assembly in place when it comes to decisions being made about Brexit, for example what will the movement of farming produce across the border look like in a post Brexit world?"
In addition to the uncertainty created by Brexit, John says the agriculture industry faces other pressures, including the price of milk and ensuring new technologies are adopted. And he says that the Land Mobility scheme could prove vital in making sure NI continues to generate the best quality produce possible.
"I am happy to speak to anyone who would like to find out more about the programme and how we could help them to either build a career in agriculture or take a step back and know that their land is in safe hands," he adds.