Agriculture Minister Michelle O’Neill used her keynote speech at this week’s National Ploughing Championships to announce the first phase of the Farm Business Improvement Scheme (FBIS).
Speaking during a special reception at the Championships in Co Laois, the minister said that the Rural Development Programme has been a key source of support for Northern Ireland’s farming, environmental and rural sectors over the last six years.
The minister recently announced EU approval of the north’s Rural Development Programme 2014-2020 which will provide support for knowledge transfer, innovation,cooperation and capital investment available to farmers, through the proposed FBIS.
She told those gathered at the event, which was jointly hosted by DARD with the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine in the south: “I am very pleased to announce that the first phase of the Farm Business Improvement Scheme will open for applications in October. This first phase of the FBIS will establish Business Developments Groups for farmers.
“I want to stress how important these groups are, as they are designed to help farmers come together with their peers, to learn about and enhance their knowledge of business management, new technologies and innovative ways of working. In these challenging times for the Industry, this new programme will assist farmers to acquire the tools to help them make the right decisions about their businesses now, and particularly before they decide to take on additional financial commitments.”
While the scheme remains subject to the appropriate approvals, the minister took the opportunity to urge all farmers to take part.
She also announced that the first phase of the Leader Programme is getting under way now with the development of interim local area strategies by the 10 rural Local Action Groups (LAGs) and the relevant councils.
These strategies are being drawn up in conjunction with the Council Community Plans, and importantly, using the benefit of consultation with the local community who are being asked for their views about the priorities for funding within their areas.
Minister O’Neill added: “The Leader Programme has a budget of £70 million to invest in our countryside, which is a significant sum, and I would encourage rural communities to fully engage in this process with their local LAG and Council.”
During her speech, the minister addressed the dairy crisis. She highlighted both the efforts made to tackle the issue and her disappointment with the aid package offered by the EU.
She added: “The Commission package raises more questions than it could answer. While confirmation of targeted aid is welcome, I am seeking clarification that the funding package is new money and we need to hear how it will be targeted to those farmers most in need and when it will reach our farmers in the north. I have written to Commissioner Hogan seeking urgent clarification on how it will support our farmers.
“Given the great importance of agri-food to the north of Ireland economy, it is a major role of my department to support our industry, to help and encourage it to become more efficient and competitive..
“I am committed to the long-term sustainability of the entire agri-food sector. Farmers and primary producers here can depend on me as a locally accountable Minister to ensure that their interests and needs are prioritised as we reach further into a growing global market, proudly showcasing our high quality produce,” she said.
The minister concluded her speech by highlighting efforts to promote 2016 as the Year of Food and Drink.
She said: “We have a wealth of high quality, safe and wholesome foods available to the processing, food service and retail sectors and I continue to encourage processors and consumers to seek out local produce where possible. Our produce has world leading traceability and safety controls and it is produced on farms with a strong track record in quality assurance systems and high animal health and welfare standards.
“Year of Food and Drink is an opportunity to showcase the north of Ireland as a quality food destination and also provide the platform for sharing the supply chain story from primary producer through to consumer. I do hope that you all get the opportunity to come to the north and be part of our celebration.”