Farm support – change is coming
29 January 2021
Farm support – change is coming
The final evening of the 2021 Young Farmers Clubs’ of Ulster (YFCU) Agrifood conference focussed on the important role of farm subsidies in Northern Ireland and a discussion regarding potential changes that may be coming down the track in this regard.
The panellists taking part were: Victor Chesnutt, President of the Ulster Farmers’ Union; Rodney Brown, Head f Agribusiness at Danske bank and Dr Rosemary Agnew, who is DAERA’s Transition Policy Director with a specific responsibility for future agricultural support measures.
The Danske Bank representative confirmed that farm support measures are critical, when it comes to determining the profitability of almost every farm business in Northern Ireland.
“This is even the case on our very best farms. Support measures have changed over the years. However, local farmers are very at ease with the current arrangements.”
Looking forward, Brown could not see a scenario within which local farms could do without some form of support measures being available to them.
“But change is coming. In my opinion, future support measures must be preferentially directed to those farmers who are actually producing food.”
Dr Agnew said that the Treasury in London will be funding all future farm support measures, adding:
“In a post-Brexit world Northern Ireland will have a fair degree of autonomy, when it comes to deciding what support measures best suit local agriculture. But the Treasury will seek to ensure that it is getting full value for money on the back of the commitments it will make to farming in Northern Ireland
“The current government has confirmed that the current support levels available to agriculture will remain in place until the end of 2022. However, the last Conservative Party Election Manifesto referenced a funding commitment up to the end of the current parliament.
“DAERA officials are working on the premise that a long term future funding commitment from London will be made to agriculture in Northern Ireland.
Dr Agnew reflected on the future farm policy principles recently espoused by Farm Minister Edwin Poots MLA. From a future farm support perspective, three main policy pillars are envisaged: the availability of a ‘safety net’ area payment, coupled support for suckler cows and breeding ewes plus the development of new agri environment schemes.
“All three principles must be cohesive and link seamlessly together.”
The DAERA representative then flagged up a number of points of detail, which will be addressed courtesy of the envisaged schemes. For example, there will be a strong production and performance themes associated with a future coupled payment scheme. Age of calving and calving interval are issues that have already been considered, where suckler cows are concerned.
Dr Agnew envisaged a future where agri insurance schemes will play a significant role in delivering sustainable future for local farmers. She highlighted the need for continuing education opportunities to be made available to farmers while also referencing the DAERA proposal of 2018, which suggested that anyone taking over a farm business from 2025 onwards should have a third level qualification.
Commenting specifically on the needs of young farmers moving forward, Dr Agnew said that DAERA is currently considering a number f proposals designed to facilitate farm succession in Northern Ireland.
Victor Chesnutt said that he did not like the word subsidies, preferring to use the word support at all times.
“The current support measures are helping to deliver affordable food to consumers throughout the UK.
“Part of the problem with the current measures is that 50% plus of the money available is not going to those people, who are actively producing food. This has to change.”
According to the Union President, the UFU has already submitted its detailed proposals, where future beef and sheep support measures are concerned, to DAERA.
“Our views on dairy and the other commodities will follow shortly. Future environment schemes will be important. But it’s crucial that all these measures are drawn up by farmers for farmers.
“The new support schemes must be sued to improve the efficiency of agriculture in Northern Ireland. I am deeply concerned that, at that some stage in the future, support levels to the industry may be drastically reduced.
“Beef and sheep cannot survive without support. This is a fundamental fact, which government must always recognise as is the key role played by the various support schemes in maintaining the fabric of our rural communities.”
“Our food processing industry must secure additional government support to allow it both expand the scope and quality of its existing facilities.
“Northern Ireland is falling badly behind the rest of the UK and the Republic of Ireland in this regard.
“The theory is a very simple one: the more efficient our food processers become the greater is the potential for enhanced prices to be paid back down the line to the primary producer.”
Specifically, where dairy is concerned, the Union President believes that an increase in that sector’s scale of operation would reduce or, possibly, eliminate the need for milk produced in Northern Ireland to go south of the border for processing.