As Minister for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, I lead a new department with a broad outlook and a wide range of responsibilities. It is an economic department guided by an environmental ethos where our agri-food industry meets our natural heritage.
From the outset, one of my key priorities is to enable the agri-food sector to grow sustainably.
I recognise the challenges we face and I understand the significant pressures felt by our farmers. In my first few weeks in post, I have been to a number of agriculture shows across the province to meet and listen to farmers. I understand the challenges we face when the livelihoods of thousands can be impacted by events over which we have no control, such as global market volatility, exchange rate fluctuations and international trade issues.
I want to assist the industry to be dynamic and flexible in coping with the demands and opportunities of the modern marketplace. As Minister, I will work to create the conditions that will allow us to grow our market share, in a sustainable way. When issues are difficult and challenging – as seen by the fall in milk prices – we need a collective effort. Everyone – including government, stakeholders, supplier, and producers – has a part to play in this. When opportunities emerge, we need to be nimble and decisive.
In my role as Minister, I am committed to ensuring that CAP support payments are made in a timely and efficient manner. In the coming weeks I will announce further details on the Farm Business Improvement Scheme, which includes a package of measures to drive sustainable growth in the sector. Furthermore, I intend to meet with banks to reassure myself of their continuing flexibility in helping farmers address their cash flow issues.
The Going for Growth agri-food strategy and the Year of Food and Drink 2016 showcase our ambition and underline the innovation, creativity and quality of Northern Ireland producers and processors. I will work with Department for the Economy and Invest Northern Ireland to ensure a joined-up approach to opening new export opportunities for Northern Ireland’s quality produce.
I will also work to enhance the resilience of the industry so that it can deal better with these challenges while exploiting the opportunities for growth. We must use our rural development programme to deliver sustainable outcomes, to create jobs and to develop our rural infrastructure.
As an MLA for Strangford, I am very familiar with the needs of rural and coastal communities. I appreciate the tensions between limited resources and unlimited potential. I realise that there are economic considerations – the financial realities which are at the forefront of people’s minds and which must underpin everything we do, while still meeting our environmental obligations for future generations.
The creation of DAERA and the new Assembly mandate provide the opportunity to address challenges around the protection and improvement of our natural environment. Farmers, as the custodians of the countryside, must be at the centre of these efforts and I aim to create a new environmental advisory resource to provide guidance on protecting our natural environment. In the years ahead, we must develop our woodlands, enhance water quality, conserve habitats and species, and support improvements in recycling and efficient resource management.
As Minister, I look forward to working with industry, stakeholders and the wider community, all of whom make a valuable contribution to our local economy. With colleagues in the Executive, I will work to ensure that our agricultural sector thrives, our natural heritage is protected and our rural communities grow and evolve.