Newry and Armagh DUP candidate and former DARD Committee chairman William Irwin has spoken of his concerns on the direction of the new Business Development Groups.
Mr Irwin said that farmers who have contacted him say that the new groups are not targeted enough to the actual needs of farmers and also they feel that farmers should be grouped with other farmers who operate similar systems.
Farmers are complaining that the new system is less beneficial to the industry when compared to benchmarking carried out by DARD. Particular criticism has been placed on the new business development groups for the dairy sector.
Mr Irwin explained: “The Business Development Groups were set up to facilitate the sharing of knowledge amongst like-minded farmers and in principle this is a worthwhile process as farmers can share helpful information amongst each other with the overall aim of improving their farm operations.
“Speaking to those taking part in the groups, the reality is rather different, as we are finding the groups are consisting of farmers with differing systems of operation in a similar area and therefore this is limiting the value of information being shared, given the considerable variations from farm to farm.
“DARD are including daft rules for those who are taking part in the process. One example is that other members of a farm business will be excluded from taking part in a group even if a business development group is meeting on their own farm.
“I feel that DARD need to make a timely assessment of the BDG’s in order to ensure that the farmers within each group have farm operations of a similar type and scale to allow more useful engagements that would provide a benefit. For instance a dairy farmer with a high input robotic system will have a completely different set up compared to a spring calving dairy farmer who is maximising their output from grazed grass and milking in a parlour and that is where I feel the knowledge transfer is limited in practice given the difference in systems.
“It is vital that the Department addresses this variation within groups or I can envisage a drop out in participation and that would be unfortunate given the potential that could come from the BDG’s were they to be correctly formatted.”
He concluded: “I am also very critical of the fact that farmers who have not joined a Business Development Group will not be able to avail of the advice and support of a DARD Adviser and this is something that I will be robustly challenging in the coming days directly with the department.
“The new department should be actively assisting any farmer and the advice on offer should not be curtailed or farmers excluded from seeking this advice and help in any way.”