This week, Northern Ireland Minister for Agriculture, Edwin Poots launched a public consultation on the future shape of farm support measures in Northern Ireland.

Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) officials have confirmed that a £300 million annual budget has been ringfenced for the new measures up to the end of the 2024/2025 financial year.

They should kick in at the beginning of 2023/2024.

Four outcomes as part of consultation

The consultation document published by the minster is premised on four broad outcomes, according to DAERA.

  1. An industry that pursues increased productivity in international terms as a means to sustained profitability, closing the productivity gap which has been opening up with other major suppliers;
  2. An industry that is environmentally sustainable in terms of its impact on, and guardianship of, air and water quality, soil health and biodiversity, while making its fair contribution to achieving net zero carbon targets;
  3. An industry that displays improved resilience to external shocks (such as market and currency volatility and extreme weather events) which are ever more frequent;
  4. An industry which operates within an integrated, profitable, efficient, sustainable, competitive and effective functioning supply chain, with clear transmission of market signals and an overriding focus on high quality food and the end consumer.

Components of future programme

A number of main product work streams constitute the primary components of the programme in the foreseeable future.

A resilience measure

It is intended that this will be a relatively easy to administer area-based income payment to provide a basic safety net, but set at a level which does not blunt innovation or productivity, according to DAERA.

Initially, this measure will have the majority of the budget allocated to it (as it follows on from the current direct support payment arrangements). However, over time, and in line with the capacity for delivery and uptake of new support measures, its budget will reduce to a much lower level as funding is released to the other measures.

In effect, it will be a 'gateway' support scheme, and those wishing to apply to most of the other farm and farm environmental support measures, must first meet the criteria of this scheme.

Its eligibility criteria will include compliance with a new set of Farm Sustainability Standards, which will be the proposed replacement for current Cross Compliance requirements (i.e. Statutory Management Requirements (SMR) and Good Agricultural and Environmental Condition (GAEC)).

There will be other related obligations, such as a requirement to undertake certain activities, e.g. soil sampling and nutrient planning.

consultation on nitrogen soil nutrient programme soil fertility moisture deficit

A crisis framework

This will set out the key principles on how DAERA should respond in a crisis, matched with an expectation that farm businesses must proactively build risk management and resilience into their business models.

Future arrangements for public intervention and private storage aid are also discussed.

Any funding required for crisis management will be provided by top-slicing the agricultural budget or via a separate funding bid, at the appropriate time, with evidence of need.

Headage sustainability package

This will comprise a measure for suckler cows and a beef transformation measure which will drive better economic and environmental performance.

Again, there will be obligations for eligibility that are in addition to those for the resilience payment, according to DAERA.

This will be funded by the immediate redirection of up to 17% of the overall farm support budget away from an area based distribution.

Farming for Nature package

It is envisaged that there will be a number of bespoke support schemes e.g. general farmland, non-protected high nature value land, protected high nature value land.

Over time, increasing levels of funding will move from the resilience payment to this package as momentum builds and it will form the central plank of agricultural support with the aim of ensuring that the environment becomes both an enterprise and a profit centre on farms.

It's anticipated that this package will evolve and expand going forward, to ensure that impact, scalability and deliverability are achieved, according to officials.

Farming for Carbon measures

farming climate carbon trading pilot GLAS Landowners FES REAP CAP Farmers Social Farming CCAC

These will assist and incentivise farmers to adopt carbon reduction actions into their management and are also central to this future policy.

DAERA is seeking to ensure that as many of the policy interventions as possible help drive down the carbon footprint of the agricultural industry. This will evolve over time as baselines and reduction targets are established.

However, the department said that there are relatively simple measures that can assist all farm businesses now to begin to reduce their carbon footprint, and the initial focus of this measure will be on ensuring that farmers have correct information and training to enable this to progress.

Investment measure

This will support innovation and new technologies that will drive increased productivity, better nutrient management and reductions in carbon, ammonia and nitrates emissions, improved water quality and improved farm safety.

DAERA officials added that they are mindful of the burden of capital overheads that the sector already carries, so careful consideration of investment measures to support these objectives will be a key consideration.

Knowledge measures

These will be deployed to underpin much of the change and improvements that DAERA is seeking to drive.

These measures will be designed to secure the capacity and capability to enable the industry to invest in continuous professional development as a means to delivering against the four strategic outcomes (listed above).

Measures will seek to build on the Business Development Group model and embed a knowledge component in as wide a range of other measures as possible.

Generational Renewal Measure

This will facilitate the acceleration of the transition of farming businesses to those with better training and skills, who are more open to innovation and change and who have a longer investment horizon.

A comprehensive approach to this challenge is needed, according to DAERA, and a programme of work is proposed to take this forward.

Supply chain measures

These are expected to help deliver better strategic outcomes. The focus will be on what the department can do, in relation to the position of farmers and growers, to encourage collaboration and support fairer supply chain.

The envisaged supply chain measures will link across to the parallel Northern Ireland Food Strategy Framework that is under development.

The agriculture minister is urging farmers and stakeholders to engage with the consultation process which is now underway.