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Agriculture can deliver the homegrown jobs we need

The local agri-food sector has weathered the recession better than many other parts of the economy. There is a reawakening right across the political and business spectrum about the contribution it makes to our economy and its potential for continued success.

Not only is it one of the largest sectors, it has proven resilient in these difficult economic times, contributing more than £3billion in sales and almost £1bn-a-year in terms of gross value added, providing more than 50,000 jobs throughout the supply chain in the north.

A recent Northern Bank report backs this up by forecasting that the agriculture sector will have the second-highest level of growth this year.

When selecting departments in the new Executive, we picked Agriculture and Rural Development because of the key economic role the agri-food sector is playing in building economic recovery.

I am convinced that my department has a critical role to play in supporting this important and successful industry.

I feel that the agri-food sector has the potential to be a key driver in taking this economy out of recession. I want to see a sector that has a better-skilled, more integrated supply chain, with all parts of that chain working together to exploit the market opportunities that exist.

I would encourage all those in the sector, and those with its best interests at heart, to work with us to develop and deliver this shared vision.

I will want to work with the sector to facilitate dialogue throughout the supply chain.

The agri-food sector is unique in that often the entire supply chain - farmer, processor and retailer - is located close to one another, providing jobs and retaining wealth in our rural communities. Fairness is important to me, so I will also press for the best legislation possible for a supermarket adjudicator. It is important producers feel valued, and get a fair return for their produce.

Of course, our marketplace and our competition are international and I will want to help ensure our producers and processors are able to compete on equal terms.

So I will be advancing our requirements for reform to lead to a well-funded, flexible and simplified Common Agriculture Policy.

We have high quality, regional food and I aim to promote it and support the development of unique quality products.

The Rural Development Programme provides specific support to the agri-food sector through schemes to support processing and marketing of products and through support to develop the supply chain.

It also provides significant support to farmers to modernise their farms, improve their skills and protect our most valuable environmental assets.

DARD provides a wide range of support available to the agri-food sector and I intend we will continue to work with others to ensure a successful, sustainable and thriving industry.

Agriculture will be a key player in meeting the challenges of building economic recovery. Over this Assembly term, I will work hard to widen our agri-food sector and to ensure its position as a central contributor to the Executive's economic recovery plan.

I am confident, through working closely together, we can create jobs and help deliver higher levels of economic growth for this important sector.