Important role of agriculture must be recognised: UFU

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The Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU) says maintaining farm incomes must be a key objective of Northern Ireland’s future agriculture policy as the UK prepares to leave the EU.

UFU president, Ivor Ferguson said: “It is critical that the UK government grasps the major differences between farming in Northern Ireland compared to the rest of the UK. Farms are smaller here and more reliant on direct support. What is being proposed for England would decimate our industry, which is based around small, family-run farm businesses.”

The comments were made following the publication of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee (NIAC) report on Brexit and Agriculture in the province. The UFU gave evidence to the committee in June 2018 and has welcomed the report recommendations, which are broadly in line with the organisation’s position.

The report makes a strong argument that government policy on ‘public goods’ should be modified for Northern Ireland to include ‘the survival of farms as an essential rural asset’.

It recommends the government, as a priority, make known how they plan to allocate direct financial agricultural support post 2022, and at what level, to allow the devolved administration time to plan and develop support mechanisms. And to commit to area payments beyond 2022 with particular focus on small and marginal land farms.

Other areas dealt with in the report include trade, cross-border supply chains and North-South cooperation and the issue of the agricultural workforce, much of which is drawn from the European Economic Arena (EEA) and the Committee notes that it is “vital that the importance of agriculture to Northern Ireland’s economy is reflected in the Government’s approach to immigration and labour policy.”

The Committee recommends that, if the NI Government is not restored by the end of the year, the Government should set out how it will develop post-Brexit agricultural policy for Northern Ireland.

Mr Ferguson continued: “Farming is the cornerstone of Northern Ireland’s economy. Proportionately, it makes a bigger contribution here than in any of the other UK regions and our future domestic agriculture policy must reflect this. We have always argued that farming in Northern Ireland is a ‘public good’ and should be recognised as such. Farmers cannot be green when they are financially in the red.”

The UFU is also encouraged by the recommendation that government should proactively engage with Northern Ireland to support the development of policy options and the roll out of pilot programmes.

“We see this as key and in particular support the idea of incentivising longer term tenancy agreements, which could be ready to run during 2019-2020 financial year,” said Mr Ferguson.

However, without a functioning Executive there is a real danger Northern Ireland’s farming industry could be overlooked. “Despite the recent DAERA consultation on future agriculture policy, without an Executive it is unclear what decisions can be taken or what can be implemented. Given the political impasse, we are disappointed with the lack of formal channels for feeding in Northern Ireland’s priorities to UK policy-making and the limited engagement by the UK government and Defra,” said Mr Ferguson.

The impact of Brexit has the potential to be felt more acutely in Northern Ireland than in the rest of the UK. Mr Ferguson says the UFU has always recognised there are opportunities as well as challenges that come with Brexit.

“Whatever Brexit deal is agreed, it must ensure that frictionless trade is maintained between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, as well as Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Future import and export trading arrangements are also a key focus of this report and it is encouraging that the report’s recommendations largely concur with the UFU’s position.”

Mr Ferguson says the UK government cannot afford to ignore the report recommendations, adding: “Time is tight but I would urge the UK government to take action based on the recommendations. Brexit is a once in a life time opportunity, we want to ensure Northern Ireland’s agriculture industry has the tools and support in place to be able to thrive and prosper.”

Members of the NIAC have been told that the agri-food sector is critical to the local economy and to its rural communities. In addition, farming businesses are key employers in rural communities and essential to sustaining local economies. Farmers also play a vital role as stewards of the natural environment, maintaining areas of natural beauty and protecting landscapes and habitats that might otherwise come under threat.

Responding to the NIAC report, Nature Matters – a coalition of organisations working towards a friendly Brexit for Northern Ireland – confirmed that that time is short for making critical decisions.

A spokesperson added: “We would support the committee’s call for the UK government to provide clarity and confidence for Northern Ireland’s agriculture sector.

“Nature Matters is also in support of the ask to ensure funding for the agriculture sector is maintained, and not distributed via the Barnett formula in the future.

“We agree that farms in Northern Ireland must survive as essential rural assets however without being able to quantify what is being delivered by this maintenance, we believe it is disingenuous to describe this as a public good and do not believe that this should be used as rationale for maintaining direct support in its current form.”