Through the 1994-99 EU processing and marketing grants scheme, the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development has assisted potato processors to invest in modern grading, washing, packing and storage facilities. Since 1 January 1999, grant payments totalling £858,000 have been made to potato processors. Non-capital support to encourage better marketing has also been provided under the marketing development scheme. Since 1 January 1999, marketing grants of £89,000 have been paid to potato processors.
Will the Minister investigate the possibility of using her Department’s expertise to give marketing advice to our potato growers on what action they might take to deal with the threat of cheap potato production from eastern European competitors? They are shortly to join the European Union and will be able to trade without restriction in our home markets.
We will certainly be giving marketing advice to our potato producers, because that is part of our role. I assure the Member that we will also enable our farmers to compete better with growers from other countries through processing grants and through our advice on how to improve the quality of their potatoes. We have been particularly aware of that factor in recent years, given the demands by supermarkets for uniform, nice-looking potatoes, which appeal to the customer. My Department has also been working hard to ensure that our producers are in a position to compete in that market.
I am interested to hear that Mr Poots envies the Republic, but I do not want to comment on that.
I am aware that we have problems with level playing fields in certain sectors. I have had representations made to me from several sectors, and I am looking at that. I am anxious to do something to ensure that our producers, at all levels, are in a position to compete on a level playing field.
There is no provision for capital grants to potato producers. However, my Department works closely with both seed and ware potato groups, the largest of which attracts over 50 growers. Competence development programmes to help improve husbandry skills, which have an impact on returns, also exist. In addition to grants for both processing and marketing, significant support is provided to the Northern Ireland potato sector by the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, IDB and LEDU in terms of technical advice and support through Loughry Agricultural College and research and development activities.