Sinn Féin’s agriculture spokesperson at the Stormont Assembly is calling for the new farm sustainability payment to be put on hold until such time as a new farm support budget is agreed.

Declan McAleer is the vice-chairman of the Stormont agriculture committee.

He believes that the introduction of a new farm sustainability payment, which will replace the existing single payment, cannot take place until such time as a new agriculture support budget for Northern Ireland is agreed with Westminster.

Most political parties in Northern Ireland, as well as all the farm stakeholder bodies, want to see farm support budgets increased and benchmarked against inflation into the future.

The current single payment fund is set at just over £300 million per year. An industry-wide campaign to have this farm support figure increased to £400 million is already underway.

McAleer explained: “The absolute priority is to get the support funding levels made available to agriculture in Northern Ireland significantly increased.

“Only then, can we get into the detail of introducing the new sustainability payment and the other support changes that will accompany it.”

According to the Sinn Fein representative the members of the agriculture committee at Stormont have met Northern Ireland’s new DAERA minister, Andrew Muir, on a number of occasions.

“All the parties represented on the committee are in agreement that the proposal to increase the minimum farmed area that is eligible for support from the current 3ha up to 5ha would be a retrograde step,” McAleer told Agriland.

“And I sense that Minister Muir is now coming around to this perspective.

“The proposed changes would take 1,400 farmers out of the support net altogether. All these small businesses are major contributors to the food output generated in Northern Ireland, when taken as a group.

“They also play a vital role in maintaining the highest environmental and conservation standards in the countryside. This commitment and continuing level of investment must always be recognised.”

The last 12 months have seen a number of new farm support measures fleshed out by Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) officials.

These include the introduction of the aforementioned farm sustainability payment in tandem with new age-at-slaughter and suckler cow schemes.

All of these new programmes need to be legislated for. However, the jury is still out on whether such a development will require a full debate on the floor of the Stormont Assembly.