This week I brought a motion before the Assembly highlighting the ongoing crisis within the agriculture industry. Despite the ongoing talks, and actions taken following the murder of Kevin McGuigan it is right the Assembly discussed the problems facing our largest industry.
There is an obvious temptation to score political points during any debate, but as an elected representative, and as a farmer, my sole motivation was to speak up for the industry.
Whilst the dairy sector has been most obviously affected, there are pressures across all sectors. Farmers are well used to normal fluctuations, but the sustained and widespread pressure across all sectors is different to what we have experienced in the past.
In the short-term the EU aid package must be distributed fairly. Northern Ireland’s farmers have been hit hardest within the UK and is only fair that the lion’s share of the £26million available to the UK should be directed here.
The situation requires a broader and long-term response however. The issue of pricing from farm-gate to plate must be addressed. No business can be sustained if its returns do not meet the cost of production. Retailers must recognise the importance and value of sourcing local food at a sustainable price to the producer. It need not mean customers pay more, just that profits are distributed more fairly along the supply chain.
The banking institutions have a role to play. Some banks have already shown leniency in providing more flexible arrangements in light of the current crisis. Farmers have a tremendous affiliation and connection to the land they farm. They have demonstrated resilience over decades. The banking institutions must continue to lend a sympathetic ear to farmers and recognise the value of the agriculture industry to the wider economy.
Locally our minister can take action through the new rural development programme. She must ensure the various strands of support available to farmers are quickly made ready for applications. The red tape and bureaucracy which became a hallmark of previous programmes must also be tackled.
Despite the enormity of the challenges facing agriculture, farmers are some of the most resilient business operators. They simply want assistance to allow them to survive until they reach better days ahead. It is vital though that all those with positions of responsibility step up and make the changes that can bring those better days sooner rather than later.
DUP MLA, Newry & Armagh