Radical proposals for future farm support for suckler and sheep farmers have been put forward by Northern Ireland's farming industry. Professional development, low-emission livestock, quality assurance and enhanced welfare would all be rewarded under the plans. Announcing the strategy in a preview event for the Guild of Agricultural Journalists (Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland), Livestock and Meat Commission chief executive Ian Stevenson explained he wanted to see farmers rewarded for making their businesses more efficient and sustainable.

The recommendations are based on a 138-page research report commissioned by the LMC, Northern Ireland Meat Exporters Association (NIMEA) and the Ulster Farmers' Union and conducted independently by the Andersons Centre.

The farm support proposals were also presented to the department yesterday with Minister Poots said to have been "enthused" that the industry was coming up with its own constructive ideas for support schemes. "The next step is to get a conversation going within the industry," Stevenson explained. "One of the key advantages from Brexit is the ability to develop new agricultural policy for Northern Ireland and having the flexibility to do this.
We want to design an industry that's fit for purpose for the future and delivers the necessary public goods that are delivered off our industry in order to justify the level of support we get."

A 'mature look' at farm support

Stakeholders were clear that change was needed in order to retain the level of support currently available. "We're not looking to go back to the past, we're not looking to rewrite the history book. We want to look at what is there and what is used in other countries and would fit particularly for Northern Ireland," UFU beef, lamb and hill farming policy officer Daryl McLaughlin added. Conal Donnelly, NIMEA chief executive said the world had changed on a number of levels since farm support schemes were first designed. "While we were spending time worrying about Brexit, the environmental agenda didn't stop and there is a lot in this to address the 30-year challenge we have ahead of us," he said.
I think that is one of the strengths of this - it's a very mature look at what the industry is going to need to do in terms of this and greenhouse gases.
"This is the outset of a long journey that the industry has to go on. It is public money and reducing our carbon footprint is a very important public good that we can provide but the other point is that we also need to have an industry -the UK and Europe, and the world will need food. And Northern Ireland is an excellent place to produce red meat and it's important that public policy supports that."

Key recommendations

The plan is expected to be made public soon. However, key recommendations include:
  • Continuing direct payments whilst public money for public goods schemes are shown to work;
  • Ensuring future support matches funding given to farmers in the Republic of Ireland to provide a level-playing field;
  • Tax incentives to encourage land mobility;
  • Use data more intelligently to minimise bureaucratic burden on farmers;
  • APHIS/BOVIS data etc. to automatically calculate KPIs (e.g. calving intervals);
  • Re-keying of data on application forms should be minimised. Automation can help;
  • Greater focus on consumer and societal needs;
  • Market orientation needs to be a core aspect of continuous professional development (CPD);
  • Address non-agricultural policy issues;
  • Develop robust methodology to measure net GHG emissions.
Among the most radical changes is the suggestion that farm support could be paid into a government-held account and drawn as needed to minimise tax losses. For example, the fund could be drawn during years where profits are lower to mitigate some of the impact of volatility. While it's a concept unheard of in this part of the world, this is a means of support said to occur in some southern hemisphere countries.

'We are not going to get paid to do what we have always done'

Asked by Agriland why the industry needed to voluntarily offer to sign itself up to additional requirements for farm support, stakeholders in the plan explained that change was coming regardless. "The one key thing we were very mindful of is that we have seen the direction of travel in England, for example, where they are actually phasing out direct support payments to farmers in their entirety and in favour of the Environmental Land Management measures," Stevenson said. "There was a recognition within the farming sector that in order to maintain even the same level of support going into the sector (and you could argue more) farmers are not going to get paid for doing what they have always done.
Things are going to have to change so as part of helping to drive that change this framework is designed around very positive attributes that will help deliver those public goods."
Donnelly added that the proposals would also have benefits for farmers. "The benefit back to farmers is in terms of productivity - improve their productivity, improve their efficiency and improve their bottom line. If you can improve your efficiency you can improve your carbon footprint and your impact on the environment," he said.