Minister positive about the future

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Agriculture Minister Michelle O’Neill has welcomed this week’s 9.4% increase in the average price paid at the Fonterra Global Dairy Trade (GDT) auction.

“Hopefully, this is the start of a sustainable trend for milk producers,” she said.

“I am fully aware of the financial pressure that dairy farmers have been under over recent months. To this end I met the banks and had formal discussions with DEFRA in London plus representatives of the European Commission. Specifically, I had requested an increase in dairy intervention prices.”

In general terms the minister believes that farming and food in Northern Ireland can look forward to a bright future, in 2015 and beyond. Her confidence is centred on the industry’s ability to successfully export its output to a large number of countries worldwide.

“I am very aware of the fact that the Euro has weakened significantly against Sterling over recent weeks. But Europe is only one of the export markets that we can target. Countries such as China, Australia and the United States are potentially lucrative outlets for food produced in the north.”

Commenting further on the potential to develop food exporting opportunities to China, O’Neill confirmed that she will visit that country in the near future in order to facilitate the needs of the pork sector.

“Vets from China had planned to be with us in January to inspect our pork processing operations. That did not happen. Doing business with the Chinese is all about developing good political relations with that country. And to that end we have made a good start. I have already visited the country twice and will go again if the pork processing sector believes that such a gesture is required on my part.”

The minister is very aware of the strides made by the government in Dublin to forge stronger trading relationships with the US and other countries around the world – the recent decision taken by the authorities in the United States to green light Irish beef imports being a case in point.

“There is a cross border working group in place which allows the interest of the north to be fully recognised when it comes to meeting the strategic needs of farming and food sectors. I also have a good working relationship with EU Agriculture Commissioner Phil Hogan and my counterparts in DEFRA,” she said.

“So there are a number of options open to me when it comes to ensuring that the needs of local farmers and food processors are communicated to the key decision makes within Europe and beyond.”

The minister went on to confirm that Commissioner Hogan will visit Northern Ireland at the end of March.

Mrs O’Neill firmly believes that the Going for Growth strategy, espoused by the Agri Food Strategy Board, will deliver the export opportunities which she believes must underpin the sustainability the of agri food industry moving forward.

“The Executive at Stormont has an agreed vision and strategy for the farming and food sectors. We have already made £250 million of funding available to help drive the Farm Business Improvement Scheme, which is a fundamental driver with the new rural development programme.

“There is also a close working relationship between my own department and DETI.”

The minister also indicated that Brussels should approve the new rural development programme by the summer of this year.

“We submitted a plan that will provide us with significant flexibility, in terms of its overall implementation,” she said.

“I am aware that of the significance that farmers place on the implementation of the Farm Business Improvement Scheme. The first step in this process will be the establishment of Business Development Groups, which will allow producers develop the business plans they need to identify their specific opportunities for growth during the period ahead.

“Full details relating to the working of these new groups will be forthcoming later in the year. However, their operation will require a strategic input on the part of DARD and CAFRE staff.”