Exchange rate could have major impact

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This week’s confirmation from the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) that an advance on this year’s Basic Payment will be paid in the autumn is good news for farmers.

Cash flow is the driver of every business. And farmers are as dependent on money coming into their bank accounts as are all other small enterprises.

The sting in the tail, however, will be the exchange rate of Sterling against the Euro. The pound has weakened considerably against most of the world’s currencies over recent months. And this means that local farmers will get less Sterling for their Euros, once the conversion is made. All of this assumes that the currency exchange rates will stay as they are until the end of September.

The upside of all this is the fact that a weaker pound makes food exports from Northern Ireland more competitive on EU and international markets. This factor has helped drive most commodity prices forward over recent months. And, of course, a weaker Sterling makes food imports into the UK relatively more expensive. This is a further boon for local food companies and farmer prices.

DAERA’s rationale for confirming the advance payments this year reflects the continuing upward trend, where on-line Single Application Form (SAF) submission rates are concerned. I know that many farmers still feel inconvenienced by this requirement: they just don’t feel at home, when it comes to using computers and IT-related systems.

However, this is the future. We cannot stop progress. But one thing which the Stormont Executive can do – assuming it reconvenes in the autumn – is to grasp the nettle of poor rural broadband speeds, once and for all. Farmers and other rural businesses are most affected by the unacceptably poor broadband speeds currently available to them. And this is inherently unfair.

To their credit, DAERA staff have been extremely helpful when it comes to facilitating farmers wanting to make on-line SAF applications from their offices. But, in truth, this is only papering over the cracks. All farmers should be able to settle their own Basic Payment-related affairs without having to leave their own yards. But in those cases where new farm maps have to be downloaded and amended, current broadband speeds in many rural areas make this operation a very fractious process.