Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) Permanent Secretary Dr Denis McMahon believes that Northern Ireland’s farming and food sectors are punching well above their weight on behalf of the economy as a whole.
Speaking at this year’s Farming Life Awards, he confirmed the success of many local food companies at the recent Great Taste and Irish Food Awards.
“We have also seen the recent opening up of new export markets for food produced in Northern Ireland. These include the Philippines and Taiwan.
“DAERA will continue to work with the industry in helping to bring on stream additional markets during the period ahead. This work will further benefit the prospects of the farming and food industries as a whole.”
He added that DAERA’s new Knowledge Advisory Service (KAS) will help deliver improved productivity at farm level while also enhancing the environmental impact of production agriculture in the province’s rural areas.
Launched six months ago, the new service brings together existing advisory functions provided by the College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE) along with agri-environment advisory functions formerly provided by the Department’s Countryside Management Unit (CMU).
KAS is managed within a single management structure and located across CAFRE’s three campuses and the DAERA Direct office network. Its primary role will be the holistic development of farm and food businesses, where economic and environmental performance are inextricably linked.
Turning to Brexit, Mr McMahon said that DAERA is working to ensure that the best possible outcome is secured for farming and food for Northern Ireland.
“We received a tremendous response from industry stakeholders regarding the recent public consultation on Brexit,” he said.
“The views expressed will be used to help formulate the most feasible support structures for agriculture in Northern Ireland post-Brexit.”
Many of the themes discussed by the DAERA representative were also touched upon by Danske Bank’s Head of Agriculture Rodney Brown at a briefing held for members of the Guild of Agricultural Journalists earlier that day.
Danske Bank’s Agri Economic Outlook Breakfast at Ten Square in Belfast heard that the agri sector is in generally good financial health, with a high percentage of farmers choosing to pay down debt and average incomes rising, particularly for dairy, pig and mixed-use farms.
“We need to see the efficiency levels secured by production agriculture improved significantly,” said Mr Brown.
“At the present time only 40% of the land area in Northern Ireland is farmed to its maximum potential.”
Mr Brown foresaw the use of the Land Mobility Programme as a way of getting this figure increased.
“Conacre is not fit-for purpose when it comes to delivering improving farm productivity. We need to see increasing numbers of active farmers entering into longer term land leasing arrangements,” he said.
Mr Brown also believes that the current direct payment support scheme should be ended.
“What’s required is a support scheme that better rewards farm productivity,” he said.
“Farming must become more efficient and at the very heart of this will be measures that allow farmers to share best practice.”
The Danske representative confirmed that coping with volatility remains the biggest concern moving forward for the bank’s customer base.
“Within the dairy sector we have seen a significant number of milk producers opt for fixed price, long term supply agreements with processors,” he said.
“And they have taken a similar approach when it comes to borrowing money. It’s all about removing as many of the variables that can impact on a business as possible,” he concluded.
Mr Brown also highlighted the need for farmers and food producers to see devolved government back in place and lobbying on their behalf to make sure the sector does not fall behind following the UK’s exit from the EU next year.
Delegates attending the event also heard from Danske Bank Chief Economist Conor Lambe, who said that the industry is likely to grow both this year and next year.
Meanwhile, Danske Bank’s Head of Markets Brian Telford told the audience he did not anticipate a rise in interest rates before Brexit takes place but did flag the potential for a rise in global oil prices to filter through to costs for farmers and agri-businesses.