It is now more than seven months since I took up post as Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs in May. As 2016 draws to a close, it seems appropriate to reflect on my first months in office and look forward to the future.
This department covers a wealth of areas. When taking this post, I made it clear that DAERA is an economic department guided by an environmental ethos where our agri-food industry meets our natural heritage.
Now, as then, I recognise the challenges we face and I understand the significant pressures felt by our farmers. With this in mind, I am pleased that several initiatives have come to fruition.
21,111 farm businesses received advance Direct Payments amounting to £158.4m in October, making Northern Ireland the first region of the United Kingdom to deliver advance payments. £92.8m in Direct Payments were made to 22,594 farmers in December. This represents 96% of eligible farmers.
Tier one of the £40m Farm Business Improvement Scheme – Capital also opened in the autumn. We are now in Tier two of this important programme.
Cash flow is a concern for the agri-food industry. Since day one, I have worked to ensure that there are no unnecessarily delays in allocating funding, and that farmers receive awards as soon as possible. I have also met with banks to address this issue, and explore what can be achieved collectively going forward.
Over the summer, I was pleased to visit agricultural shows across Northern Ireland. I was delighted at the warm welcome, and also that people took the opportunity to raise issues. These visits brought home the diversity and vibrancy of our agri-food sector and rural community.
The Year of Food and Drink, 2016 was hugely important for the agri-food industry in Northern Ireland. Our produce is world-class, and this year was a celebration of that fact as we looked to expand our horizons and bring our offerings to new markets.
The success of my recent trade mission to China, including key meetings held with senior Government officials and an impressive presence of NI companies at the prestigious Food Hotel China exhibition, was proof of the progress that is being made in this important market. I also attended the prestigious SIAL food and drink exhibition in Paris to promote our agri-food industry and develop economic opportunities.
Elsewhere, NIFAIS – a new £8.7million state-of-the-art food, animal health and traceability system for Northern Ireland – was unveiled in July. Also, £150,000 was announced for Young Farmers’ Clubs of Ulster in June. £100,000 was allocated to Social Farming Grant Scheme in October. In 2016, a total of 493 rural organisations were awarded ‘micro’ grants, representing a total investment of £609,000.
The scope of my department extends to other areas such as the environment. It is my belief that protecting the environment is in everyone’s interests, and that we should work collaboratively to achieve this.
My department allocated £2.6million from the Carrier Bag Levy to environmental projects across Northern Ireland in November. The Forest Expansion Scheme extended in July, providing support for farmers and landowners to plant woodlands.
The vote to leave the European Union earlier this year showed that the political landscape is changing. We must be agile and dynamic to take advantage of the opportunities this presents. With my Executive colleague Simon Hamilton, the Economy Minister, I established the Brexit Consultative Committee to bring together key stakeholders.
I have made, and continue to make, the case for Northern Ireland with my counterparts in Westminster and beyond to ensure our interests are represented in the negotiations to the leave the European Union. As part of this, I welcomed Secretary of State Andrea Leadsom and Farming and Fisheries Minister George Eustice, from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, on separate visits to Northern Ireland.
With an annual turnover exceeding £4.5 billion per annum, agri-food is one of the most strategically important sectors to our economy. It is much more important here than is the case in other parts of the UK.
For that reason, future trade and support arrangements are going to be extremely important for the prospects of the industry.
I will be seeking an outcome where our future relationships with the EU and the rest of the world are no less restrictive than they currently are in terms of both tariff and non-tariff barriers. Rather than contemplating the possibility of new barriers to trade and their negative effects, we should be striving to retain current access arrangements in the short term and create new export opportunities in the longer term.
In terms of fisheries, I recently returned from the December Fisheries Council in Brussels with an uplift of 8.6% on quotas - a positive result for our fishing industry. Also, the £15million fisheries grants programme, European Maritime and Fisheries Fund, opened for applications in September.
I also recently announced £1.7million of new funding awarded to research institutions in Northern Ireland through the DAERA Collaborative Research Fund initiative. 2016 was also a memorable year for the 627 students who graduated from CAFRE.
From attending agricultural shows across Northern Ireland to meeting a range of stakeholders, I have taken every opportunity to engage with those in farming, environment and the wider agri-food economy. I will continue this work in the new year and, indeed, throughout my time as Minister.
In pausing to reflect on the achievements of DAERA, I am mindful that they set a benchmark as we look forward. I, and my department, will continue to work in the interests of our farming industry, our environment and our wider rural community.
Finally, I would like to extend to all of you my best wishes for a happy and prosperous new year in 2017.