Expectations are growing that the farm business improvement schemes – agreed as part of the new rural development plan for Northern Ireland – will be officially launched by Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) minister Michelle McIlveen over the coming weeks.
Agri-Food Strategy Board Chairman Tony O’Neill has welcomed the fact that the funding is available for these capital grant measures. The real challenge, he believes, will be that of getting farmers to invest in their businesses at a time when margins are under very real pressure.
“But farming is a very resilient industry. Its ongoing sustainability is critical for the hopes of the economy as a whole,” he said.
O’Neill believes that it will take a concerted effort on the part of all Northern Ireland’s stakeholder groups to ensure that the £200m, available under the new measures, will be fully utilised.
“Farmers must be encouraged to invest sensibly in the future of their businesses,” he added.
Meanwhile, The Ulster Farmers’ Union has urged DAERA to take a more flexible approach on the inclusion of fencing in the new farm business improvement schemes. UFU deputy president, Ivor Ferguson, said it is their understanding at this stage that fencing may not be included in this scheme, despite it being part of a similar scheme south of the border.
With the scheme due to open later this year, the UFU is concerned that despite demand from the industry for fencing to be included, DAERA may reject this.
Mr Ferguson says farmers are being urged to become more efficient, with a big drive to improve grassland management.
“If the scheme included funding for new and improved fencing, this would automatically deliver better grassland management. There would be additional benefits for biosecurity too,” he said.
Mr Ferguson added that UFU members have shown a keen interest in using the scheme for upgrading fences and erecting new fencing.
“Like us, they are well aware that farmers in the Republic of Ireland have recently been given access to a sheep fencing scheme. The DAERA approach will put our members at a potential competitive disadvantage,” he added.
The UFU says it will continue urging DAERA to include fencing in the first tranche of the scheme and to ensure the FBIS is rolled out as soon as possible.