As we reach the festive season and begin to make plans for the 12 months ahead, it is important that we look back and learn from what has been a difficult and often demanding year for farmers in Northern Ireland.
Adverse weather conditions impacted on farming with parts of rural County Fermanagh and wider areas of County Londonderry being pounded with heavy rain and incidents of flooding.
Farmers can prepare for many trials, but flooding is one scenario that can bring an entire industry to a halt. We were tested with ground conditions and battled hard to reach deadlines; with this years harvest being one of the hardest fought in recent memory.
I am so often mindful at the mental impact that adverse conditions are having on farmers and their families. I have long been an advocate and champion for improved services for farmers with poor mental health, and I will continue to fight the case during the remainder of this Parliamentary term.
Despite these challenges, we have much cause to be positive and ambitious about the road that lays ahead. We have seen huge advancements in broadband and rural connectivity that will assist farmers and further enhance our province as a world leader in the output of broadband. This year we have also witnessed an increase in milk, lamb and beef prices. This is a tribute to the dedication of those working within the industry.
During the summer months our pork and beef sector received a significant boost; with pork exports entering the Chinese market and Northern Ireland beef being granted approval into the Philippians. These were hard fought campaigns and I want to commend all those involved in the negotiation of this success.
Despite political instability, Northern Ireland now has a place at the very heart of the UK Government. This influence, negotiated following the snap General Election, has guaranteed £1b for health, education, roads and broadband.
As we plan ahead, this new-found influence can be used to pledge the case for a strong post-brexit deal for farmers. The unique case of farming here has been well rehearsed, but it is time that we deliver on the direct concerns that our industry faces. The EU Withdrawal Bill will act as the cornerstone of an agreement and it is vital that our agri-foods sector is held at the heart of this.
We have established a stronger and more constructive relationship with DEFRA officials and we look forward to seeing commitments on the guarantees we have negotiated. 2017 has been a demanding year with many barriers hindering growth and expansion. However, Northern Ireland is in a strong position to negotiate and deliver for the future of agriculture.