A year of opportunity beckons for agriculture in Northern Ireland

The members of the Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU) office bearer team are strongly of the view that 2023 will be a year of opportunity for farming in Northern Ireland.
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Specifically, they believe that food security will become a major issue for society as a whole as the year progresses.

Earlier this week, the Union held its annual New Year press review, at which the organisation’s president, David Brown, said that the farming industry must take the lead in developing policies across a range of crucially important issues that impact locally and internationally .

He further explained:“Where climate change is concerned, agriculture is a critically important part of the solution.

UFU president David BrownUFU president David Brown
UFU president David Brown

“And the general public must be made fully aware of this point.”

“Sustainability works at three levels.

“Farm businesses must be economically sustainable. At a national level, the issue of food security will always be important.

“And, of course, environmental sustainability will always be a critically important issue.”

William Irvine, David Brown and John McLenaghanWilliam Irvine, David Brown and John McLenaghan
William Irvine, David Brown and John McLenaghan

The Union president specifically highlighted the development of a climate action plan and work to agree new farm support measures for farming as being of particular importance as 2023 progressed.

Where the Northern Ireland Protocol, is concerned, the Union President senses a renewed commitment from Brussels to recognise the need for greater flexibility to be brought to bear on this matter.

He added: “This certainly seems to have been the case since the beginning of the year.”

Brown stressed the need for the development of trust on the part of all parties involved if a success outcome to the protocol negotiations was to be achieved.

UFU deputy president William Irvine confirmed that the Union will be actively participating in the public consultation linked to the recently published Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) Ammonia draft action plan.

He said:“The ammonia issue throws up numerous challenges for many of the farming sectors, not least the implications linked to planning consents.

“Agriculture must be allowed to evolve, as is the case with all other industries. Putting severe restrictions on how farmers can future plan their businesses will simply bring about the slow decline of agriculture as a whole.”

Irvine concluded:“There is a range of technical solutions, which will allow farmers to resolve the ammonia challenge in an equitable manner.

“But farmers must be funded accordingly so that they can make the required investments.”

The Northern Ireland Protocol: what constitutes a safe landing zone for the UFU?

David Brown believes that trust between all the parties involved will be at the heart of a Northern Ireland Protocol agreement that may be arrived at between the European Union (EU) and the UK government.

He said that the recent agreement on data sharing, reached between London and Brussels, is a sign that Europe is now negotiating seriously.

Brown also referenced the recent agreement to extend the derogation on veterinary medicines in a similar context.

The Union president continued:“A delegation from the Union will be visiting Brussels in February to discuss many of the technical issues that currently underpin the ongoing protocol negotiations.

“As an organisation, we will not get involved in the formal politics associated with the protocol. However, EU Commission officials have always been forthcoming in terms of the information that they have shared with us.

“And, on that basis, I believe that the upcoming visit to Brussels will be extremely relevant.”

According to Brown, the current protocol arrangements meet the needs of local businesses exporting outside of the UK.

For example, there is absolutely no restriction on the cross border movement of milk and lamb at the present time. It is envisaged that this fundamental principle will remain in place, irrespective of the final outcome to the protocol negotiations.

“But fundamental challenges remain, with regard to trading arrangements that involve the movement of goods between GB and Northern Ireland, the UFU president further explained.

He cited the sourcing of seed potatoes, cereal and grass seed as issues that arise in this context, adding:“The veterinary medicines agreement pushed that issue down the line for three years. It is not a long term solution.

“Fundamentally, we must arrive at a situation, which sees the level of checks on goods coming into Northern Ireland from GB minimised.

However, the Union president recognised that regulations and inspections had always been in place when it came to the importation of livestock from GB into Northern Ireland.

David Brown added:“The other issue that must be addressed is that of divergence in standards between the UK and Brussels as time passes.

“This is a natural consequence of two political entities taking different perspectives on a wide range of evolving issues.”

He concluded:“We must get to a point where there is a significant level of trust between politicians.

Future farm support options in Northern Ireland

The UFU is confirming that the current single farm support system will end in 2024.

Thereafter, the Westminster Parliament will decide the levels of budgetary commitment the industry receives from the Exchequer.

David Brown is emphasising that UK tax payers will be footing the bill for all future farm-based support systems.

Speaking at a press event this week, he also flagged up the fact that the current £300m budget for the single payment is not guaranteed beyond the completion of the current farm support system.

The Union has also admitted that the funding previously available under the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) for the likes of rural development measures is not contained within the current basic payment budget.

However, the UFU is confident that extra funding will also be made available to enable a number of projects.

These include the soil testing/LIDAR programme, which is already underway and ruminant livestock genetics schemes.

However, additional funding will be required to activate a number of other related strategies, covering: green growth, food, peatlands, and environment-related projects.

Finance apart, the UFU is also flagging-up key practical difficulties linked to the proposals outlined in the future support discussion paper put out for public consultation by former agriculture minister Edwin Poots last year.

These include the challenges posed in reducing the proposed age of slaughter for prime cattle.

In overall terms, the Union buys-in to the principle of improving efficiency levels at farm level over the coming years.

Where the suckler sector is concerned, it wants to see the effective implementation of the proposed bovine genetic programme.

David Brown commented:“We have seen improved genetics playing a key role in delivering enhanced efficiency levels within the poultry, pig and even dairy sectors.

“We need to see similar progress replicated within the cattle industry as quickly as possible.”

The UFU submitted its response to the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) future agricultural policy consultation some months ago, following consideration within its internal committee structure.

The Union wants to ensure that sufficient time is allowed for a managed transition and for new measures and schemes to be agreed and implemented.

UFU policy makers believe that upcoming decisions relating to future agricultural policy development constitute a once-in-a generation opportunity to ensure the sustainability of Northern Ireland’s farm structure.

These policy changes must also deliver for the environment, local communities and consumers.

Rapid progress must be made on a new bTB eradication strategy

The Union office bearer team have confirmed that political sign-off will be required to officially implement a new bovine tuberculosis (bTB) eradication strategy in Northern Ireland.

However, they feel strongly that significant progress can be made over the coming months in preparing the way for this.

A case in point is agreement on the establishment of a new company that will carry out the badger cull.

A model very much centred on the approach now being taken in England has been agreed for Northern Ireland. A mix of night-time shooting and trapping of badgers in ‘hot spot’ areas will be taken in this regard.

But as Union deputy president John McLenaghan indicated, the envisaged timetable for the implementation of the new strategy foresaw culling activities of badgers in agreed ‘hot spot’ areas taking place later this autumn.

He continued:“In the meantime the ‘hot spot’ areas have yet to be identified. The contractors needed to carry out the culling operation have also to be appointed and trained.

“All of this work can take place without any political input whatsoever.”

According to McLenaghan, making this happen will require the setting-up of the new company, charged with the responsibility of carrying out the wildlife interventions.

“And the new business will have to be adequately funded,” he stressed.

It is envisaged that voluntary levies on milk and slaughtered cattle – 0.02p/L and £1/head respectively– will be introduced to fund the new measure. The monies will be collected and managed by Animal Health and Welfare Northern Ireland (AHWNI).

The new culling strategy will allow for approximately 75% of the badgers within a ‘hot spot’ to be removed within a six week period during the months of September and October.

Badger populations will be maintained at this reduced level for a minimum period of four years, after which it is envisaged that a vaccination policy will be introduced.

Badgers will be shot by people, who have been specifically selected and trained to carry out this job.

Meanwhile, David Brown has confirmed that the issue of the bTB levy is currently under discussion amongst Northern Ireland’s red meat and dairy processors.

Initially, it had been hoped that agreement on the levying mechanism would be agreed this month (January 2023). However, hopes to this end are now fading.

“Agreement on the levy-related mechanisms would confirm farmers’ commitment to the new bTB eradication process,” stressed the Union president.

About: David Brown is a suckler beef and sheep farmer from Florencecourt, County Fermanagh. A past chair of Fermanagh Grassland Club, David remains passionate about grassland management.

Within the UFU David previously represented the south west group on the beef and lamb committee. David was elected as UFU deputy president in 2018 and UFU president in April, 2022.

William Irvine is a dairy farmer from Mountnorris, Co Armagh, farming in partnership with his wife Ruth and son David. He has held numerous roles within the UFU including dairy committee chair, representing NI dairy farmers on the COPA Milk Working Group and the UK on the Milk Civil Dialogue Group.

William represented Co. Armagh on the UFU management board prior to being elected deputy president in July 2020.

John McLenaghan from County Derry/Londonderry, has suckler beef, an egg enterprise, wind turbine and biogas plant. His partner is Lisa and they have three children.

John’s UFU experience includes former group chair of North East Londonderry.