Supporting all farming sectors remains a priority – O’Neill

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Agriculture and Rural Development Minister Michelle O’Neill has said she was delighted that her department had ended 2015 by delivering on its promise to make 95% of Basic Payments to eligible farmers by the end of December.

Reflecting on 2015 and looking ahead to the New Year, the minister added that she was pleased that DARD had paid more than 1,700 cases, which had been subject to a farm inspection, by the end of the year.

She said: “I am delighted that we could bring a challenging year for farmers to an end by announcing that 95% of eligible farm businesses received their Basic Payments in December and that more than 1,700 cases which had been inspected were included in this. These results are remarkable when you take into consideration the new processes we were required to implement under the reform of CAP. My officials will continue to work diligently to process remaining claims as quickly as possible and I appeal to farmers to work with us to ensure any outstanding claims are quickly sorted.”

Looking back on a challenging 2015 for the farming industry, Minister O’Neill said: “Supporting farmers from all sectors through the difficulties they faced has always been a priority for me and will remain so through 2016 and beyond.

“Our dairy sector was dealt a severe blow by a combination of falling milk prices and high exchange rates. I was not prepared to stand by while the European Commission told farmers that this real threat to their livelihoods did not amount to a crisis. Through persistent lobbying from me and other local industry and political stakeholders, both DEFRA and the Commission finally recognised the unique and extreme problems faced by our farmers and they received a higher rate of emergency payment as a result. As we enter a new year, I will continue to lobby for a review of the intervention price.

“We also worked closely with the banks to encourage them to remain as flexible as possible and, at my request, the Agri Food Strategy Board set up the Supply Chain Forum to drive effective communication between producers, processors, retailers and other senior representatives connected to our industry. While challenges remain in 2016, I will continue to stand up for all sectors of our industry.”

There was better news for the agri-food industry, the minister said, when China provisionally approved exports from Northern Ireland, the approval by the EU of NI as Officially Brucellosis Free (OBF) and with the introduction of legislation to help eradicate Bovine Viral Diarrhoea.

She went on to say: “During my time as minister, I have visited China on three occasions and, this year, we hosted two inward inspections from Chinese officials because we knew the potential benefits of removing barriers to this lucrative marketplace. While there is still work to do, my officials are working closely with the two pork processors to ensure this work is progressed swiftly and business can get going.

“We continue to make progress with international market access negotiations in line with industry priorities and I anticipate a very positive start to 2016 with regard to agri-exports.

“In addition, I look forward to the Year of Food & Drink 2016 initiative as an opportunity to showcase the north of Ireland as a quality food destination both locally and internationally, and to further promote our high quality, safe and wholesome food products to the processing, food service and retail sectors.”

She said the introduction of legislation to help eradicate Bovine Viral Diarrhoea will also benefit trade. It followed the announcement of Northern Ireland’s OBF status.

The minister continued: “I have introduced legislation to support the farming industry to eradicate BVD. This will result in improved cattle health and economic growth for individual herd keepers and the north as a whole. It will put herd keepers in the north on an equal footing to those in the south and in Scotland, as well as other EU member states.”

The minister also looked forward to progress in eradicating TB and in tightening the laws around animal welfare.

“At the end of 2013 I established an independent body to develop a strategy to eradicate bovine TB in the north of Ireland. The TB Strategic Partnership Group (TBSPG), which includes representatives from the farming industry, produced their Interim Report in June, which I welcomed. It outlined possible options as to how we all might work together to eradicate this disease. The TBSPG have continued their work listening to all key stakeholders. Given the complexity of the issues and the need for economic analysis of their draft recommendations I recently agreed an extension to their target date for finalising the Eradication Strategy. I look forward to receiving their report in 2016 and with industry working to get rid of TB here in the north.”

The minister expressed her satisfaction that Northern Ireland had once again remained free of outbreaks of serious epizootic disease, despite a number of Avian Influenza outbreaks in Britain and several other European countries and the increased threat from diseases such as Bluetongue and African Swine Fever. In doing so she highlighted the continuing need for good on farm biosecurity and the responsible sourcing of replacement livestock.

The minister said: “I remain committed to improving the welfare of all protected animals here and have signaled my intention to increase the penalties available to the courts for the more serious animal welfare offences. I welcome the support of the Justice minister who has agreed to include the proposed changes in his department’s legislation to ensure they can be introduced quickly. The changes will ensure that the penalties available to courts here are the most severe in these islands reflecting the serious nature of animal welfare offences.”

The minister also highlighted that 2015 saw EU approval for the new £623m Rural Development Programme (RDP) and the successful completion of the previous Programme.

The minister said: “2016 is a significant year for our rural communities. Within the RDP are schemes for improving farming and agri-food businesses, protecting our environment and supporting and indeed creating rural development projects across the north. This is especially important at present when all sectors of the industry and the wider rural community are experiencing difficulty. The programme will introduce schemes to help farmers improve productivity, contain costs and review their business models. Funding will go towards creating rural jobs, developing our rural infrastructure and investing in the future sustainability of the farming industry. The Leader Programme will also provide a range of cross-border initiatives focusing on tourism and further integrating border communities, as well as helping to expand rural businesses.

“In November, I launched the Farm Business Improvement Scheme (FBIS) through which we invited farmers to join Business Development Groups. I am delighted that over 3,300 farmers applied to join the Business Development Groups, confirming a willingness to develop and improve their business. This first phase of the FBIS will also deliver the Farm Family Key Skills training schemes and is intended to help farmers clearly identify their needs and make informed decisions about developing their business. It will prepare the way for the proposed FBIS capital investment scheme that is planned for next year, subject to the necessary approvals. I have made it a priority to make sure that RDP support gets to the businesses and communities that need it most.

“Further to this my department continued to show commitment to equipping the agri-food sector with the skills required to develop the industry and support economic growth. Enrolments at CAFRE remained high in 2015 with over 12,000 people participating in education and training programmes. Over 4,000 of these people received a Level 2 qualification or above.

“The 2007-13 Rural Development Programme has now concluded, with final payments to beneficiaries being completed by 31 December 2015. We will now begin the formal closure of the Programme including an assessment of the programme’s significant achievements and impacts on our rural communities, the agri-food industry and the environment.”

Minister O’Neill said that developing rural communities and placing rural dwellers on an equal footing with their urban counterparts was important and that is why she has introduced the Rural Needs bill in the Assembly, continued to lead on the relocation of civil service jobs away from Belfast and remains committed to Tackling Rural Poverty and Social Isolation (TRPSI).

The minister said that 2016 will be another significant year for the relocation of government jobs to counties Down, Fermanagh, Tyrone and Derry, adding: “In 2015, we saw the department’s fisheries division moved to Downpatrick and the Forest Service headquarters open for business in Enniskillen. Now we will see construction completed on the new Rivers Agency headquarters in Cookstown and work begin on the new department headquarters in Ballykelly. The local economies in all these areas will be boosted by these developments.”

She pointed to the success of her TRPSI initiative and stressed her commitment to developing a new scheme to protect and support rural dwellers.

Turning to the fishing industry, the minister reflected on a successful Fisheries Council, saying: “We faced some tough negotiations at the Fisheries Council but when we look across the range of our most important stocks in the Irish Sea there was a gain in the value of the Irish Sea quotas held by our fishing industry of some £1.2 million. When you add the value of all the other Irish Sea stocks, this brings the full value to just over £15.5 million.”

As well as launching a £17m package of Forestry Grant Schemes, Minister O’Neill pointed the way forward for the Forest Service in its new Enniskillen headquarters.

The minister once more extended her sympathy to the families and businesses in the west which had been impacted by the recent flooding. However, she stressed that Rivers Agency had been at the forefront of a swift and co-ordinated response to a very difficult issue.