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Farmers should be at the heart of Assembly plans

The Balmoral Show remains an ever-present feature in the farming calendar. I expect to see even more local produce at this year's show and it is clear that, as the show evolves, there is a greater emphasis on making sure we communicate all aspects of the industry, from plough to fork, to the many non-farming consumers who come through the gates.

I think sometimes maybe we don't see the wood for the trees - our farming and food industry is all around us and spring time is a wonderful time to be a part of it. It's something we shouldn't take for granted and that's my message to new Assembly members - get behind the farming and food industry in Northern Ireland.

The world's population is increasing by almost 1.5m every week so food security has become a major political issue, and with this speed of population growth, it surely will only become an even greater issue. China, Saudi Arabia and many other countries are buying land in Africa to secure their future food supplies.

So why not plan now to make Northern Ireland a strategically important food producing region of the world. We've been recognised in the past as a world-class region for engineering and more recently our graduates have given us a genuine expertise in IT. Why not agri-food as well? We have the stockmanship, the climate, the tradition in our family farms, the education structure with our agriculture and food colleges, and a sophisticated food processing sector. Many of the ingredients are in place to see the industry prosper and supply quality food to other parts of the world which are struggling with, for example, rising populations or declining rainfall.

I would like to see our newly-elected politicians think strategically and create a Programme for Government which will generate a strategic plan for the agri-food sector. This has the potential to create jobs and place Northern Ireland at the heart of the solution to perhaps the most pressing issue facing countries around the globe.

The industry is already worth over £3bn annually to Northern Ireland but we can increase this considerably with the right leadership and planning.

The Ulster Farmers' Union has been pro-devolution because we see real benefits in being able to speak face-to-face with local ministers and committees about local issues. It is very encouraging for us to see the Assembly complete a full term uninterrupted and this is surely a sign of a growing maturity in our political system.

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As we enter a second full term in the restored Assembly, we look forward to our politicians being completely focused on creating a vibrant future for our small population.

There are immediate challenges facing farmers. Feed, fuel and fertiliser costs have soared over the winter and this has had a serious impact on profits. It throws up once again the issue of how our food supply chain works. The supermarkets have not worked hard enough to share the profits in the food chain with their suppliers and we have to press the Coalition Government to introduce a Supermarket Adjudicator as soon as possible. This will independently oversee fair play and no one should have anything to fear if they are doing things properly.

The other source of farm income is EU support through the Common Agricultural Policy. While it is often criticised, there is no doubt that it is a huge boost to Northern Ireland. CAP funds create jobs, produce food, keep rural communities alive and help farmers manage our countryside. These are the public goods which supermarkets won't pay for. It's a vital income stream for thousands of farms in Northern Ireland, many of them small.

Unfortunately the system has tended to be dogged with red tape and this is something which our politicians and civil servants must also address. But farmers will set these concerns to one side for the next few days as they 'come to town' and enjoy the show.


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