It is always a pleasure to speak in this debate before the forthcoming adjournment or in any Adjournment debate, but that is just by the way. I thank Mr Speaker for setting time aside for this debate, which means that I can discuss an issue that is very close to my heart: the worth of the land and its value to society.
I live on a farm, and rent out acreage to neighbours and working farmers. I am proud of the land that I inherited from my father and will pass on to my sons and grandchildren. I am also an Ulster Scot and I am very fond of the Ulster Scots language, culture and history, so I want to quote four lines of an Ulster Scots poem entitled “On Slaimish”:
“Whar nicht-wantherin Orr dreamed yit, for a’
The bitter wakkenin o ninety-echt:
This lan that cried the dreamers bak, for
This is hame.”
No matter how far in the world we may go, or wherever our talents and abilities may take us, for those of us who hail from Ulster one thing will always remain: our hame—our home—is the land.
I have been a member of the Ulster Farmers’ Union for approximately 35 years, and I agree with its assessment of agriculture in Northern Ireland. It has said:
“Agriculture is one of Northern Ireland’s most important industries. As a whole, the agri-food industry turns over more than £4.5 billion every year and supports one in eight jobs in the UK, making it a cornerstone of Northern Ireland’s economy and farmers play a key role in this. Currently, there are over 25,000 farm businesses in Northern Ireland producing the wide variety of raw materials needed by processors and retailers to meet the demands of consumers. Farming in Northern Ireland is not just a job but it is a way of life and we are extremely proud of our family farming structure. Rural communities here are extremely close knit and farmers and farming families are at the heart of these communities. When you compare Northern Ireland to the other UK regions, and in fact the rest Europe, we are definitely a region that punches above its weight when it comes to farming.”
For young farmers, farming is in their blood. While I greatly admire this, I have concern for their future, because the research is very clear. The Farm Safety Foundation suggests that 81% of young farmers believe that mental health issues are the biggest hidden problem facing farmers today. The foundation’s research also shows that a farmer takes his or her life every week across the United Kingdom. A 2012 UK study of psychological morbidity of farmers and their partners and spouses based on 784 face-to-face interviews at agricultural shows found a higher risk of psychiatric disorder compared with non-farmers. There have been other reports across the world. There were interviews with dairy farmers in New Zealand, and in 2015 a national survey of mental health in Canada told us that it is not just a Northern Ireland or a United Kingdom issue and problem but a global one. It is a lonely life, and it is certainly a calling, to be a farmer.
We should appreciate the industry that is the foundation of agrifood, with a turnover of some £4.5 billion in Northern Ireland alone, and the impact that farming has on the wider economy. For every £1 that a farmer puts into the economy, £7.40 is gained, so farming is clearly the engine room of the economy. About 75%, or 1 million hectares, of Northern Ireland’s countryside is farmed in some way. This industry is vital for the Northern Ireland economy, employing more than 3.5% of the total workforce—well above the UK average of 1.2%.
It is my belief that we must—please excuse the pun, Madam Deputy Speaker—plant our support firmly behind the farmers and the farming community. This truly is the lifeblood that runs through my constituency and, further, through the Province as a whole. It is also what helps to sustain the UK. We must be proud of our land, provide support for those who tend our land, and ensure that we are good stewards of our land through sensible farming. I love seeing the patchwork of fields as I drive into work daily, and I see the fallow fields as a nod to the fact that there must be sensible farming as well. I love seeing the nests in the farmers’ hedges flourishing as they encourage biodiversity and plant life. I stand as a proud Ulsterman in this Chamber—proud of my culture and heritage, proud of my belief system, and proud of the land that I so gratefully call “hame”. It is ours in trust for the next generations, and we must be good stewards of it. The decisions in this place must impact on that stewardship. I trust that it will be wise stewardship from here right down to the very soil in my constituency.
I thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and your fellow Deputy Speakers, for your kindness, patience and understanding for me in this House—