Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Michelle O’Neill, was full of optimism for Northern Ireland’s agri-food industry during today’s Question Time. It is “a major driver for success in our rural economy” and one of the few sectors to grow in spite of the economic downturn. The challenges set out for the industry in the Agri-Food Strategy Board’s ‘Going for Growth’ report will be challenging but “doable”. The aim is to create 15,000 new jobs, increase sales by 60% to £7bn and promote more sales in new markets by 2020. A recent visit to China has already laid the foundations for engaging foreign markets. The recently announced Agri-Food loan scheme is just the first phase of meeting the ‘Going for Growth’ targets and “significant” investment has been set aside to implement the Strategy Board’s recommendations.
Concerns over Northern Ireland’s trees were also expressed as the Minister was questioned about the recent outbreaks of Larch Tree disease and Ash Dieback disease. Since Larch Tree disease was first discovered in Northern Ireland in 2010 more than 600 hectares of trees have been felled in infected areas. The recent outbreak of Ash dieback in Leitrim was described as “regrettable but not unexpected”. DARD has been working with the Forest Service, DAFM and DEFRA to investigate the best course of action to contain the problem. Ms O’Neill also confirmed that there is grant support available for any landowners affected by the felling of trees on their land. The funding aims to encourage regrowth of species less susceptible to the disease.