Undoubtedly, these are tough times for agriculture in Northern Ireland. And the only solution to the economic woes confronting the industry is for everyone involved to put their shoulders to the wheel and start pushing.
The upcoming Brexit negotiations will be extremely important for local agriculture – but so is the need to project the right image of our most important industry.
There is no doubt that the great outdoors remains the most natural environment in which to keep ruminant livestock. Despite current fertiliser prices, grazed grass remains the cheapest form of feed for ruminant livestock. Dairy, beef cattle and sheep grazing contentedly in the fields sends out all the right messages to consumers about the way milk and lamb are produced in Northern Ireland. It is our strongest marketing image and we must never lose sight of this fact.
Indeed, any steps that we can take as an industry to enhance this status in the eyes of consumers must be taken, hence the importance of measures such as the Countryside Management Scheme. It is interesting to note the way farmers in Scotland’s National Parks are now using their newly gained status in order to essentially ‘brand’ their produce. The purpose of this editorial is not to espouse the National Park concept but rather to highlight, once again, the public’s growing interest in food production practises.
There is now little doubt that the average man and woman in the street is prepared to pay that little bit extra for food which he or she believes has been produced under the highest possible welfare and environmental standards. Many academics now believe that it should be possible for the agri-food sector to increase its overall share of total consumer spending, provided farmers openly embrace the tenets of environmental protection and welfare friendly production practises.
But farmers must achieve this while, at the same time, striving to increase the output from their land. The most recent official estimates predict that the world’s population will increase by 50% over the next 25 years.
Spring – which is hopefully not that far away– is a time of new growth, symbolising nature’s commitment to make a new start every year. Farmers are the custodians of the countryside. There is now little doubt that the key challenge lying ahead of them will be that of maximising our land’s ability to produce food while, at the same time, adding to its environmental heritage and conservation value.