The past 12 months and looking ahead to the future - Poots

This has been an unprecedented twelve months. We have all faced many challenges, both individually and collectively, personally and in business.

Last week, I addressed the virtual Annual General Meeting for the Ulster Farmers’ Union, where I reflected on the past year and looked ahead to the future that faces us all within the industry.

Once again, I want to thank the farming community for its response to the pandemic. This again has demonstrated both the resilience of the farming community and value of the local agri-food industry to our society. This resilience will be vital as we look ahead, developing future policies that will help foster a productive and sustainable industry that will be to the benefit of all.

Despite the many challenges over the past year, during 2020 the Total Farm Income for the industry as a whole increased by 34%. This was much needed and we want to continue that growth in a sustainable and responsible way. However, whilst I welcome this figure, I recognise that many businesses have had a difficult time and those challenges are not over yet.

Over the past year, I have secured £25m from the NI Executive to support those sectors and farm businesses hardest hit by the impact of Covid-19. To date, almost £23.5m has been paid out to approximately 11,500 farmers and growers across the dairy, beef, sheep, potato, pig, poultry and ornamental horticulture sectors. I have also recently announced financial support packages worth over £1m for wool producers, up to £2m for pig producers and further financial support for potato growers. These schemes will open in the early summer. As normality returns and the economy begins to recover, there will be opportunities for agri-food and the rural economy and my Department will do all it can to support businesses to make the most of these.

Although my primary focus has been on mitigating the worst effects of COVID-19, I have also maintained a strong desire to address other key issues. Since coming into office I have been acutely aware of the difficulties faced by farmers in the North West who suffered from the extreme weather events of August 2017. My Department has made available £3.5m for a support scheme that will make a contribution towards compensating farmers in the area who were directly impacted. I hope to be able to progress this scheme by the summer.

Climate change will unfortunately make these episodes more frequent and it remains the biggest challenge of our time - it is vital we take action now to secure a future for generations to come. This challenge, however, cannot be addressed in isolation. That is why in June last year, I committed to developing a multi-decade Green Growth Strategy on behalf of the Executive. This will map out the actions we must take to meet greenhouse gas emission targets and deliver a better environment, green jobs and make better use of resources within a circular economy. It is hoped the final strategy will be agreed by the end of March 2022.

In parallel with the Green Growth work, I am bringing forward a Northern Ireland Executive Climate Change Bill in line with the New Decade New Approach commitments. I want to implement legislation that is right for Northern Ireland and which is evidence based - we need to strike the right level of ambition and credibility and secure broad buy-in.

The same can be said for our future agricultural policy. My vision is defined around four outcomes - an industry that pursues increased productivity as a means to sustained profitability; one that displays improved resilience to external shocks; is environmentally sustainable and finally; operates within an efficient, sustainable, and responsive supply chain - I want to help the farm sector to be the best that it can be across these four areas.

I also see a strong central role for agri-environment measures that will deliver clear outcomes, as we have many problems to address.  Our air quality, water quality, biodiversity, soil health and our landscape are all heavily influenced by farming - moving forward we must join up our environmental ambitions with farm economic activity. 

When I took on the role of Agriculture Minister, I made it clear that one of my top priorities was tackling Bovine TB, which has been the scourge of our farming industry for far too long. Our TB programme has cost in the region of £37 million again this year, while herd incidence levels remain stubbornly above 8 per cent - that cannot continue. I have been working closely with my Chief Veterinary Officer, the TB Eradication Partnership and my officials to finalise a new Strategy for the reduction, and ultimately the eradication, of TB from Northern Ireland.

The past year has been extremely challenging and the next twelve months will be equally demanding. We will however continue to collectively work towards maximizing the opportunities that will present themselves as we emerge from the pandemic, enabling us to promote and support a vibrant future for Northern Ireland’s rural economy and farming businesses - in line with my Department’s vision of sustainability at the heart of a living, working, active landscape valued by everyone.

Minister Edwin Poots visited Hollowbridge Farm following the announement that the dairy and beef sector will get £25m in sopport to deal with the impacts of COVID19. Pictured  with farm owner Stephen Gibson and his 7 yr old son Stuart Gibson.
Photo by Simon Graham.
Minister Edwin Poots visited Hollowbridge Farm following the announement that the dairy and beef sector will get £25m in sopport to deal with the impacts of COVID19. Pictured  with farm owner Stephen Gibson and his 7 yr old son Stuart Gibson.
Photo by Simon Graham.
Minister Edwin Poots visited Hollowbridge Farm following the announement that the dairy and beef sector will get £25m in sopport to deal with the impacts of COVID19. Pictured with farm owner Stephen Gibson and his 7 yr old son Stuart Gibson. Photo by Simon Graham.