With the coldest part of winter set to begin, Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Michelle O’Neill, was questioned on what measures she has taken to account for farmers and the possible disruption to their livelihood as the threat of harsh conditions looms. The Minister demonstrated the foresight of the Department in the work of the Fodder Taskforce which was established in the wake of the cold snap experienced in Northern Ireland in spring 2013. The taskforce is made up of stakeholders in the agrifood industry and was challenged to consider the issues facing the sector in the following 12 months. An action plan was developed and approved by the Minister and the taskforce is content “all the work that is on-going and everything that they have done to date is sufficient to prepare for the winter ahead”.
DARD has also been providing advice and training to help affected farmers prepare for any difficulties. The College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE) and the main banks have been providing advice on farm business cashflow. Even mental health issues have been addressed considering the devastating impact that severe conditions can have on a farmer’s livelihood.
The Minister also provided an update on the agrifood strategy board report, ‘Going for Growth’. The report, compiled after consultation with the agrifood industry and other stakeholders, contains recommendations aimed at accelerating the growth of farming, fishing and food and drink processing in Northern Ireland to 2020. Mrs O’Neill affirmed that the department is in the final stages of consideration of the 100 recommendations arising from the report and the best way to move forward. A response to the findings will be ready “in the very near future”. When John Dallat expressed concern that good reports can sometimes end up as “dust collectors”, Mrs O’Neill assured the Member that she is “absolutely committed to ensuring that we see the recommendations through”. Funding plans are already in place – the report asks for a £400m investment from the Executive that will then leverage in £1.3bn from industry. This would be “a massive gain” and “we do not want to miss out on that opportunity”.