We have now entered the final year before the official transition period for Brexit begins and plenty of questions still remain for Northern Ireland’s farmers.
In truth, there are so many variables still undecided - with the border being a particular conundrum - that it’s impossible to determine exactly what leaving the European Union will mean for farmers. There have been endless column inches expended in the press and numerous Brexit research papers on the matter already, so I don’t propose to add to the speculation on the different potential outcomes.
But we are reaching a crucial point.
Realistically, policies will need to be developed with a lead in period of six months or more to allow solutions to be in place as we exit the EU.
I do believe that most people now understand and accept that our agricultural industry, which underpins so much more of our society and economy, needs to have a functional trading relationship with Europe, one which recognises the equivalence in standards already in place. Our European neighbours will be well aware of the premium market in Britain for their produce and none more so than our friends in the Republic of Ireland who see almost 40% of their agrifood exports go to Britain.
We are already starting to see the expected opening gambits from our potential new trading agreement signatories as they make cases for their significant agrifood exports, which are produced in a different regulatory environment with lower cost bases and therein potentially lies our greatest challenge. Our standards have been hard earned, rigorously policed and are the basis of the relationship of trust we have with our consumers. I expect that important point, which has largely now been taken for granted, will not be lost by our trade negotiators.
Trade is rightly where the big debate is focused but planning and implementation of future domestic agri policy will need to move quickly up the agenda. UK Environment Minister Michael Gove’s recent speeches indicate a high degree of devolved policy input, which is good in theory but creates an obvious problem for us. Should the cross-party Agri committee be reconvened under some format to support Secretary of State Karen Bradley? The committee has been effective in the past and members have a practical knowledge and responsibility to deliver the best for Rural NI (not just NI farmers as they in many ways are only the portal to supporting rural communities).
We do have effective people making the case for the industry and we do have civil servants planning in the background. So Danske Bank’s message to farmers is a simple one - manage what you can control.
Our best farmers adapt and deal with whatever gets thrown at them whether it be weather, commodity prices or general challenges, but they all have the common trait of being focused on what they can get better at. This might include:
q Soil health
q Grassland management
q Breeding and fertility management
q Technology uptake and embracing innovation
q Understanding costs and maximising yields
q Resource management and financial planning
Brexit will come and Brexit will go. Domestic Agricultural policy will be debated and developed. But the world still needs fed and if you can improve even marginally what you do with your own resources on your own farm then you should hopefully be in a better place regardless. It at all starts and finishes with getting the basics right.