The vote to leave the European Union showed that the political landscape has changed, according to Farm Minister Michelle McIlveen.
Commenting on the potential impact of Brexit in her New Year statement she said that agriculture must be agile and dynamic to take advantage of the opportunities this presents, adding: “With my Executive colleague Simon Hamilton, the Economy Minister, I established the Brexit Consultative Committee to bring together key stakeholders.
“I have made, and continue to make, the case for Northern Ireland with my counterparts in Westminster and beyond to ensure our interests are represented in the negotiations to leave the European Union.
“As part of this, I welcomed Secretary of State Andrea Leadsom and Farming and Fisheries Minister George Eustice, from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, on separate visits to Northern Ireland.”
McIlveen confirmed that, with an annual turnover exceeding £4.5 billion per annum, agri-food is one of the most strategically important sectors to our economy.
“It is much more important here than is the case in other parts of the UK,” she said.
“For that reason, future trade and support arrangements are going to be extremely important for the prospects of the industry.
“I will be seeking an outcome where our future relationships with the EU and the rest of the world are no less restrictive than they currently are in terms of both tariff and non-tariff barriers.
“Rather than contemplating the possibility of new barriers to trade and their negative effects, we should be striving to retain current access arrangements in the short term and create new export opportunities in the longer term.”
Meanwhile, Ulster Farmers’ Union president Barclay Bell has referred to 2016 being a difficult year across all sectors, with poor prices hitting farm businesses hard.
“This time last year few would have predicted the outcome of the EU referendum. Going forward, we as a Union have a tough job on our hands.
“We need to ensure farmers’ interests are protected in the negotiations, and that the industry is central to the development of a post-Brexit UK and local farming policy.
“Our industry also needs to develop new ways to deal with price volatility. This is not just the farmer’s responsibility. There is an onus on processors and retailers to recognise how fundamental the primary producer is to their businesses.
“All farmers want is a price that reflects what it costs to produce high quality food.
“Volatility has always been a frustration, and with EU support only guaranteed until 2020, we face a huge challenge to ensure a sustainable price for those who produce food.
Mr Bell continued: “A UK Agricultural Bill in 2018 may well be the road-map for our industry for the next 20 years. It is important that the younger generation of farmers feed into the debate.
“Whatever the outcome, we will all need to embrace the changes that come our way, and see them as an opportunity to create a new farming policy for the UK.
“People sometimes ask if there will be a next generation of farmers, but I am convinced if they are part of the debate about or future we can all look forward to a reinvigorated, vibrant UK farming industry.
“The UFU will respond to these challenges in 2017 and beyond. We have coped with change for a long time, and in 2018 we will celebrate our centenary as the voice of farmers in Northern Ireland.
“ For 2017, we will hit the ground running. We will continue to represent every sector of farming and the decisions we make will be for the good of the entire industry.”
Farmers for Action’s Sean McAuley believes 2017 will be a crossroads’ year for many farming families, from an incomes point of view
“The uncertainty for many, including the impact of Brexit, has forced them to question continuing with more of the same only to put themselves further in debt or deplete any savings they have,” he said.
Mr McAuley added that the year ahead will see Farmers for Action partner with the Northern Ireland Agricultural Producers Association to push for legislation on farm gate prices.
“This is to return farmers in Northern Ireland a minimum of the cost of production plus a margin that is inflation-linked,” he said.