Farm Support and Development Programme

Ministerial Statements – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 11:30 am on 14 May 2024.

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Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin 11:30, 14 May 2024

I have received notice from the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs that he wishes to make a statement.

Photo of Andrew Muir Andrew Muir Alliance

Thank you, Madam Principal Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to make a statement to the Assembly on the farm support and development programme.

As the Balmoral show is opening tomorrow, I felt that it was important to update the Assembly on future farm support. At the outset, however, I want to express my thanks and gratitude to countless people in Northern Ireland’s farming community for their warm welcome and the kindness offered to me to date.

I have experienced many great examples of good farming practices in Northern Ireland since taking up my role as Minister, examples that I am determined to profile and showcase. I am determined to grasp the opportunity provided to me as Minister to translate and communicate the great things happening across farming today to the general public in a clear and easily accessible manner, building resilience and looking o a strong and successful future ahead.

I do not come to the job with negativity, doom and gloom but with boundless positivity and a genuine, strong desire to work in partnership with others. As many of you will be aware, the farm support and development programme is a new programme that my Department has co-designed with stakeholder organisations to target farm support to meet the bespoke needs of Northern Ireland.

The overall objective is to transition to a more sustainable farming sector by seeking to implement policies and strategies that benefit our climate and environment while, very importantly, supporting our economically and socially significant agri-food sector. It has been long in gestation, and, for many, the details that I outline today will come as no surprise. I thank officials for all the work done to date, especially when Ministers were not in post, to develop the relevant initiatives, packages and measures in close collaboration with stakeholders.

As Minister, my vision for the time ahead aligns closely with the farm support and development programme and is to ensure both economic and environmental sustainability. I am keen to see the initiatives, packages and measures delivered at pace and for our ambition to be strong. I want to secure sustainable productivity and assist the development of effective, functioning supply chains, ensuring food security and high standards of disease control and public and animal health. I also want to do more to recognise the importance of the food that we produce to every aspect of our well-being. Working in partnership, I will shortly bring forward a new Northern Ireland food strategy framework that will ensure that the policies that affect our food system are aligned and that we can contribute to achieving health, environmental, economic and societal goals.

As Minister, I am clear that we must also tackle the reality of climate change. We cannot ignore what we see in front of us, with the severe weather patterns experienced this year alone severely impacting some of our towns, villages, communities and businesses. We must act now. The impact of climate change is particularly acute for agriculture, with extreme weather, for example, having a prolonged effect. In early March this year, I attended the sixty-fourth George Scott Robertson lecture at Queen's University. The presentation by Dr Pete Falloon from the Met Office unveiled critical insights into the future trajectory of UK weather patterns: drier, hotter summers alongside milder, wetter winters, characterised by more intense rainfall events. Building long-term resilience and adaptation and achieving a genuinely just transition are absolutely key.

Achieving improved environmental sustainability is paramount. I want to move to address ammonia- and phosphorus-related issues by incentivising and enabling actions that protect and enhance our natural and marine environment so that we can achieve better guardianship of water and air quality, soil health and biodiversity. An environmentally sustainable agri-food industry will also provide a key part of the jigsaw to secure the recovery of Lough Neagh and improve water quality across Northern Ireland.

I acknowledge that significant work has already been undertaken to chart the way forward. I thank officials and stakeholders for their commitment to working in partnership in the co-design of the farm support and development programme. The principles of co-design, partnership working and effective communication will be key as the programme is introduced in a phased manner in the months and years ahead.

By way of background, before I talk in a bit more detail about the future agricultural policy proposals, a consultation exercise on the policy proposals associated with the future agricultural policy framework was undertaken in December 2021, and the responses informed 54 policy decisions that were announced in the House in March 2022. Input from the agricultural policy stakeholder group, which was established in June 2021, has been essential to the development of the programme. The group brings together representatives from across the food, farming and environment sectors and ensures that their views are understood and properly considered during the development of the programme. This co-design approach provides an exemplary model for policy development that could be applied more generally across all Departments.

I especially thank the relevant stakeholders, including members of the Dairy Council for Northern Ireland; the Northern Ireland Agricultural Producers' Association (NIAPA); Northern Ireland Environment Link, which incudes the National Trust, Nature Friendly Farming Network, the RSPB and Ulster Wildlife; the Northern Ireland Food and Drink Association (NIFDA); the Northern Ireland Meat Exporters Association (NIMEA); the Ulster Farmers' Union (UFU); the British Veterinary Association (BVA); and the Northern Ireland Grain Trade Association (NIGTA), for their commitment to work together as part of the stakeholder group, which I met recently. It has provided and continues to provide a key forum for discussion at each stage of the policy development process.

Before I move on to outline the elements of the farm support and development programme, I want to first consider the significance of our agri-food sector. Northern Ireland has a unique farm family structure. Farm families work hard to produce quality food while working hand-in-hand with nature. I very much welcome the event organised by the Ulster Farmers' Union at the end of February celebrating the family farm. Since becoming AERA Minister, I have visited a range of farms, from a dairy farm and a horticulture farm in County Down and an arable farm in County Armagh to a sheep farm in County Derry/Londonderry. I have noted the massive respect that I have heard, on many occasions, for the work of the College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE) in educating those coming into the sector and those managing our farm businesses. What farmers produce is literally life-giving, as it provides sustenance to millions of people, and life-affirming through the sector's value to communities, businesses, our environment and, indeed, the very social fabric of everyday life in Northern Ireland. I have put on the record, consistently, that we need to call time on the idea that the environment and agriculture are pitted against each other. That is wrong and does a real injustice to the many positive examples of great farming practice across Northern Ireland.

Since becoming Minister, I have had very positive engagement with, amongst others, the Ulster Farmers' Union and Northern Ireland Environment Link. At those meetings, I have stressed my desire that we work in partnership to deliver a more resilient and sustainable agri-food sector as custodians of the countryside. There are many great stories to be told of environmental action in practice, and I intend to continue to showcase them. Our farmers are also key to our future food security. Climate change, conflict and population rise will provide challenges to our food supplies, but I am focused on ensuring longer-term solutions to prevent crises and preserve our food security.

Funding for the programme comes largely from the Treasury's earmarked funding for agriculture, environment and rural support, which is guaranteed to the end of the current Parliament. Some £329 million has been allocated in this financial year. It is imperative that any future settlement reflects our policy objectives and ambitions and is an absolute minimum. I want to see significant growth in the funding awarded. The farm support and development programme is made up of a range of schemes and actions, which I will now outline. Some of them are already being seen as exemplars by my counterparts in the rest of the UK and Ireland. Before I go into detail, I will reference the concerns about the schemes being overly complicated. I recognise those concerns and have asked that the simplification, accessibility and bureaucracy of the scheme be placed as a standing item on the agriculture policy stakeholder group's agenda. I have also asked that each scheme be tested against a set of criteria, which has been agreed following consultation with the group, to ensure that the initiatives, packages and measures are simple and easy to access.

As announced in March 2022, the new farm sustainability payment will provide a balance between providing a safety net that will help a farm business withstand shocks that are beyond its ability to manage effectively and encouraging farm businesses to be sustainable, efficient, competitive and able to manage risk proactively. My current planning assumption is that, from 2025, farm businesses will need to activate five entitlements on five hectares of eligible land to meet the requirements of the farm sustainability transition payment, and, from 2026, to meet the requirements of the payment going forward. With the introduction of the farm sustainability transition payment in 2025, current basic payment scheme entitlements will expire and be replaced with farm sustainability payment entitlements. The full farm sustainability payment is planned to go live in 2026. That will include changes to land eligibility, new farm sustainability standards and a new penalty regime. Those changes will be communicated well in advance. A number of conditionalities are planned, such as compliance with the new farm sustainability standards, participation in the soil nutrient health scheme, development of a nutrient management plan, the provision of specified genetic profiles — or DNA tagging — on-farm performance data of bovine animals and participation in the carbon footprinting project.

As previously announced, the beef sustainability package aims to help ensure the future viability of our beef sector by helping the sector to keep pace with its competitors, improve resilience and, importantly, reduce greenhouse gas and ammonia emissions. It comprises two elements that are aimed at improving farm productivity while at the same time reducing greenhouse gas and ammonia emissions. The beef carbon reduction scheme, which commenced on 1 January 2024, incentivises farm businesses to reduce the age at slaughter of clean beef cattle over a four-year phased implementation period. It is planned that the suckler cow scheme will go live in early 2025. It will incentivise farm businesses to reduce the age at first calving and/or the calving interval of beef bred suckler cows over a four-year phased implementation period. CAFRE is providing training to help farm businesses understand the changes to management practices that are needed.

The environmental challenges that need to be tackled in Northern Ireland are substantial, and I know that. Through the farming with nature package, there is significant potential for farm businesses and land managers across all land types in Northern Ireland to make vital, positive contributions to tackling those environmental impacts head-on and to be properly recognised by society for doing so. The package will initially focus on halting and reversing the trends in nature decline through maintaining, restoring and creating habitats that are important for species diversity and improving connectivity between habitat areas. Work is ongoing to develop the package, including an orderly transition from the environmental farming scheme.

Environmental payments will, as far as possible, seek to recognise and reward the public goods provided. That approach aims to encourage the environment to be seen as another on-farm enterprise that has the potential to become a profit centre within an overall sustainable farming model. It will also assist farm businesses and land managers to make an economic return on the environmental assets that they create and manage appropriately. Although work on the farming with nature package is not as advanced as other schemes that I have mentioned, I have asked my officials to prioritise that area of work over the coming months.

From 2026, the existing cross-compliance requirements will be replaced by new farm sustainability standards that are focused on environmental, animal and human health, and animal welfare issues, where the incidence of non-compliance has either increased or has seen limited improvement in the past five years. The exact make-up of those new standards and the underpinning set of requirements are under development. Applicants to the farm sustainability payment scheme, beef sustainability package and the farming with nature package will need to comply with the new farm sustainability standards. The standards will have an associated penalty regime, which is also under development.

The soil nutrient health scheme is a groundbreaking policy intervention that is assisting farm businesses in planning their farm nutrient management more effectively, with the long-term aim of reducing agricultural impacts on water quality. The scheme represents an investment of up to £45 million in our farming sector. Participating in the scheme provides farm businesses with important information to help manage soil nutrients and farm carbon. Crucially, participation in the soil nutrient health scheme will be a condition of the receipt of the new farm sustainability payment and the farming with nature package. It requires participants to register for the scheme and complete the training offered by CAFRE. The scheme is being rolled out zonally. Following receipt of their soil analysis results, farm businesses will be offered training by CAFRE to help them understand those results and develop a nutrient management plan. That plan will help farm businesses provide additional nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, to meet crop requirements. In so doing, it will significantly reduce run-off of nitrogen and phosphorus into our waterways. We can all agree that that is something that we want to achieve.

The ruminant genetics programme aims to drive improvements in productivity and environmental performance in the ruminant livestock sectors. The programme will be delivered by my Department in partnership with the agri-food industry. Genetic improvement will contribute significantly to achieving the target reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. The first phase of the programme will provide farm businesses with the data and evidence to make better-informed breeding decisions to advance genetic gain in dairy and feed animals. Training will also be provided by CAFRE to assist the industry to maximise the programme's benefits.

My Department is seeking to ensure that as many of the new policy interventions as possible help drive down the agriculture industry's carbon footprint. The farming for carbon project focuses on actions to reduce carbon emissions and, by association, other emissions from farms and on actions to offset carbon emissions through sequestration. The principle of encouraging farming for carbon as a business enterprise on-farm will also be developed.

My Department has collaborated with DEFRA to include a new Northern Ireland element in the DEFRA dairy demonstrator research project, which opened for applications in November 2023. Furthermore, the carbon footprinting project plans to commence in 2024.

Northern Ireland agriculture relies on an industry structure with an ever-increasing age profile of farmers. Well-educated farmers have been shown to be more open to adopting advanced technology and environmentally friendly practices. A reduction in the average age of farmers, as well as accelerating the transition to those with relevant training and skills, would provide a workforce that is more open to innovation and change.

The farming for generations pilot scheme is planned to commence in autumn 2024 and will support farm businesses in planning for a timely and orderly transition to a new generation.

The pilot scheme will provide the farm family with the knowledge and skills to help with the transfer of the management and leadership responsibility.

Plans are also progressing to launch new knowledge transfer schemes to replace the business development groups and the farm family key skills scheme, which have recently come to an end. They will build on the success of outgoing schemes, using proven methods to equip farmers to address today's challenges and develop their businesses in a sustainable way. CAFRE plans to introduce the schemes to farmers during 2024. A new, innovative package of training and support is also planned for agri-professionals that will be designed to help them better assist their farming clients through a period of change.

The Northern Ireland production horticulture sector makes an important contribution to the economy, the environment and human health. There is scope to develop the sector further. The horticulture schemes will aim to do that over the coming years. An increase in local horticulture productivity will help to improve overall agri-food sector productivity and sustainability, grow the economy and help to ensure the stability of the food supply chain by increasing local resourcing.

It is currently planned that the horticulture sector will have a bespoke range of schemes. The horticulture sector growth support scheme will aim to commence in autumn 2024, with the establishment of subsector growth groups, along with a growers' academy. An innovation support scheme will aim to commence in autumn 2025.

The capital investment scheme is planned to help farm businesses to improve their environmental performance and business efficiency. In particular, support will be focused on assisting the industry to meet net zero targets and reduce the environmental impact of farm sectors. That will be achieved by the adoption of precision technology and equipment to reduce ammonia emissions, carbon emissions and nutrient loss.

The supply chain schemes aim to assist in improving collaboration between producers and growers in the supply chain, encouraging them to innovate, problem solve and add value beyond what they can achieve in isolation. A range of supply chain schemes will be launched during 2025 for new and existing groups to pursue opportunities for growth; to develop products, processes and systems; and to address longer-term strategic supply chain challenges affecting the agri-food sector.

In January 2023, the sheep industry task force produced its report to identify the needs of the sheep sector in Northern Ireland and a proposed package to encourage its development. I welcome that report. My officials are working to better understand the strategic needs of the sheep sector, and I will consider deploying levers to meet those needs. I intend to discuss that with my officials over the coming weeks.

The farm support and development programme is supported by a full programme of communications to ensure that farm businesses are well informed of and prepared for the challenges ahead.

The purpose of the statement is to provide an overview of the farm support and development programme. Participation in that programme is voluntary, and there is no market or policy penalty for non-participation. It is clear that there are challenges ahead for us all. There is something in the farm support and development programme for every farm business to help to ensure that, together, we transition to a more sustainable farming sector.

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin 12:00, 14 May 2024

Before I call Patsy McGlone, I advise Members that, hopefully, the Chamber will be a bit cooler. The temperature was quite high, so Building Services, along with the top Table here, has tried to get it regulated. Hopefully, you will feel the difference.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire.

[Translation: I thank the Minister.]

Minister, you are probably setting yourself up for an ambush at the Balmoral show, given that your statement contained so many more questions than answers. I will pick out the issue of the sustainability payment. Will you add some flesh to the bones of the fine principles of managing effectively and encouraging farm businesses to be sustainable, efficient and competitive and to manage risk proactively? How will that be done, and how will it be communicated to the farming and agricultural communities? That is a pretty big deficit at the moment.

Photo of Andrew Muir Andrew Muir Alliance

I thank the Member for his question. Climate change is, obviously, an issue in the Chamber as well today.

The detail is important. I am genuinely committed to the process of co-design, which is how this has been successfully developed thus far. There is a need to find a way forward so that we have resilience in the sector. That has been a key concern for a number of farm businesses, given the weather issues over the past number of months. The farm sustainability payment is about building resilience and ensuring that we are able to equip them.

I understand that we need to have a safety net for businesses. I am also conscious that, given the funding that we have, business cases must satisfy in terms of value for money. It is about striking a balance and recognising the need for resilience for food security but also allowing them to move forward successfully.

Let us be clear: I am very hopeful about the sector. I look forward to the Balmoral show this week. There are challenges, but I think that, collectively, we all want to put our shoulder to the wheel and to see whether we can find a way forward to address those challenges. I came in as a Minister focused on solutions, and that is what I will do over the time ahead.

Photo of Tom Elliott Tom Elliott UUP

I thank the Minister for his statement. As Mr McGlone said, there are more questions than answers. It covers a huge range and is a big project to look at. I declare an interest as an active farmer who may or may not have an interest in applying for some of the schemes, depending on how complex they are.

I have a couple of issues to raise, with your indulgence. One is around the stakeholder group that is co-designing the projects. I have had significant complaints from some of those stakeholders about feedback.

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

Come to your question, Mr Elliott.

Photo of Tom Elliott Tom Elliott UUP

They are questioning whether it is actually co-design or just the Department using them to pay lip service to that. I would like the Minister's comments on that.

Secondly, if you will indulge me —

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

If you very quickly come to your question.

Photo of Tom Elliott Tom Elliott UUP

Some of the schemes may suit farmers who are more intensive than extensive.

Photo of Andrew Muir Andrew Muir Alliance

I thank the Member for his question. There are a number of aspects to it. I addressed the matter of complexity in my statement. It is important that, when we go forward, we check everything around the complexity and the ability to ensure that it is simple and easy to access. I have asked, as part of today's statement, for that to be considered going forward.

If there are concerns from the stakeholder group, I am happy to talk to the Member outside the Chamber, and we can talk through some of those concerns.

There is a lot of detail in relation to this, and we need to work up how each individual scheme will operate. It is important that we do that. Over the time ahead, there will be much more detail on it. I felt that it was important that I came to the Chamber today to outline the statement and take questions from Members. The easier thing to do would have been to issue a written ministerial statement on Thursday at the Balmoral show, but I felt that it was important to come here, because one of the benefits of devolution is having Ministers in post who are accountable to the Assembly. I am also happy to come to the Committee, if necessary, to go through more on the issue.

Photo of Declan McAleer Declan McAleer Sinn Féin

I thank the Minister for his statement, and I welcome it, particularly his comments that we need to call time on pitting agriculture and the environment against each other. I really welcome that. There are so many questions that I could ask, but I will try to narrow it.

Minister, tomorrow is the deadline for the single farm payment application for farmers — 15 May is cast in stone. Farmers are asking this: when they move to the new scheme, will their current entitlements carry over to the new scheme, and will they be of the same value?

Secondly, last year, when I was Chair of the Committee, I commissioned a report on the under-representation of the role of women in agriculture: 95% of main farm businesses are male-owned, and 96% of businesses in the development groups are male-owned.

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

Come to your question, please.

Photo of Declan McAleer Declan McAleer Sinn Féin

Will the Minister include looking at the under-representation of women in his new policy?

Photo of Andrew Muir Andrew Muir Alliance

Everyone is being creative with their questions. Sometimes, there are three or four in one. The Principal Deputy Speaker is showing amazing patience.

I will start with the role of women in agriculture. The legacy report that the Committee produced in the last mandate was increasingly useful. I followed up on it on my recent visit to Brussels to see what they are doing across Europe on the issue. It is something that I want to look at for this but also with regard to a rural development policy. We need to refresh our rural development policy to reflect the realities of today. I see significant issues with the role of women in rural communities that we need to address, particularly, for example, childcare. We need to work at that.

On the deadline for the single farm payment, the carry-across and details around that, I am happy to have a meeting afterwards with one of my officials. I will get clarification to the Member on that, hopefully, today or tomorrow.

The first element of the question was about pitting agriculture and the environment against each other: it is a false narrative. We cannot have economically sustainable farming that is not environmentally sustainable, and I am clear about that. I do not intend to feed into that narrative, because it is absolutely false and is based on the wrong premise. I have a clear vision for the future of the farming community in Northern Ireland. It is a positive vision. I know that there are challenges, but, if we work together, we can overcome those challenges and deliver a secure future for people. I am conscious that we are talking about people's livelihoods. It is a generational thing: families are invested in their farming enterprise. I want to support those businesses so that, in the time ahead, we can provide them with security and can all have something that we can be proud of in Northern Ireland.

Photo of Thomas Buchanan Thomas Buchanan DUP

Minister, your statement indicates an increase from 3 hectares to 5 hectares in the area of land that will be required to be eligible for the farm sustainability transition payment from 2025. That will, no doubt, knock out a number of small farm holdings that will not qualify for the new payment. What assessment has been made of the difficulties that that may present for small farm businesses? What assistance will be available to them, and how many will the new scheme affect?

Photo of Andrew Muir Andrew Muir Alliance

I thank the Member for his question. I am conscious of the issues that he has raised about small farm businesses and how we support them. I will write to the Member with the details of the evaluation that was done. We have to be clear about this: we have to have a scheme that is fit for purpose and meets the business case requirements of Treasury and the Department of Finance. That is what I have to do. I also want to see whether there is a way — I have engaged with the Finance Minister on this and will continue to do so — of looking at funding through a different lens. Currently, we look at it just through the lens of pounds, shillings and pence, but we need to look at the benefits that it gives. I am also doing that.

I will write to the Member on the details of the issue that he raised. It is valuable that he raised it.

Photo of Connie Egan Connie Egan Alliance

I was recently interviewed for a school project by a teenager called Alicia, who is from Millisle in our constituency. The interview was about pollution and environmental sustainability, but she is also a keen member of the Young Farmers' Clubs of Ulster. Young people get that we cannot pit environment and agriculture against each other. Minister, what are you doing to get more young people involved in farming?

Photo of Andrew Muir Andrew Muir Alliance

I thank the Member for her question. I want to get lots more young people involved in farming. It is a challenge — it is the challenge, if you will pardon the pun, of our generation — to get younger people involved. It is important that the message that we and I, as the Minister, send from here is a positive one on the future for agriculture and farming in Northern Ireland. If we are to get young people involved, a negative message will not attract them, so we need to set up a positive vision for the future. I am determined to do that day after day.

The young farmers' payment scheme provides an annual top-up of the basic payment scheme for farmers who meet the eligibility requirements. The scheme is open for applications, and the last year to apply for it is 2025. The new farm support and development programme has a farming for the generations programme to encourage longer-term planning for farm businesses. A farming for the generations pilot scheme, which is planned to commence in autumn 2024, will support farm businesses in planning for a timely and orderly transition to a new generation. The future of the current farmers' payment will be considered in the context of the farming for the generations programme.

Let us be clear: the future for farming is positive. Let us, all together, encourage more younger people to participate.

Photo of Áine Murphy Áine Murphy Sinn Féin

I thank the Minister for his statement. I note that he will bring forward a new food strategy framework sooner rather than later, hopefully. Minister, will you outline how the draft food strategy will align with future agriculture policy?

Photo of Andrew Muir Andrew Muir Alliance

I thank the Member for her question. Yes, the food strategy framework is very much in final draft form, and I hope to bring it to the Executive soon. It will align closely with the programme. There are other issues in it that we need to address, such as food poverty. It is a shame that people in our country experience food poverty, and the food strategy framework will relate to that. I am very much looking forward to launching it. It is a cross-cutting strategy, which is why it needs to go to the Executive. In the time ahead, hopefully, we can show, through the interventions that the Executive and I make, that we are making a positive difference to people's lives in Northern Ireland.

Photo of Jonathan Buckley Jonathan Buckley DUP

I thank the Minister for his statement. Maybe the temptation in the Department to release it at the Balmoral show was high, but I appreciate his coming to the House with it.

The new ammonia thresholds pose a real difficulty for our world-leading poultry and wider farming industry. Replacement buildings are assessed in the same way as a new building; therefore, even if the farmer proposes a new livestock shed, poultry house or slurry store that is more efficient and could reduce emissions, under this policy —

Photo of Jonathan Buckley Jonathan Buckley DUP

— it could still be refused. Does the Minister agree that that approach is folly and counterproductive, and will he move to address it?

Photo of Andrew Muir Andrew Muir Alliance 12:15, 14 May 2024

I will set out a bit of background on the issue around ammonia. The Office for Environmental Protection, which was discussed yesterday during the debate on environmental governance, took, in the absence of Ministers, what was essentially a judicial review against my Department with regard to ammonia. The permanent secretary at the time responded to that within the powers available to her, and I fully support her response and actions around that. In Northern Ireland, we need to safeguard our environment, and we need to ensure that, going forward, our environment is sustainable. That is why we are in the situation that we are now in.

To deal with ammonia, I want to chart a course forward that protects our environment but allows our farm businesses to operate sustainably. The draft ammonia strategy, which proposes measures to reduce ammonia emissions, underwent public consultation from 4 January to 3 March 2023 and attracted a high level of interest across all stakeholder groups. Responses to the consultation are being used to inform a reworked draft ammonia strategy. Additional scientific modelling, statistical analysis and supply chain consideration is being undertaken to optimise design of the key proposed mandatory measures on the use of low-emission slurry-spreading equipment. A high-level report and a draft summary report on the responses to the consultation on the draft ammonia strategy have been published. A reworked strategy will be developed by autumn this year.

I am keen to see that we get movement on this, but we need to make sure that whatever we do is science-led and evidence-led, and that is what I am guided by in my role as Minister. I get the concerns about the issue, Mr Buckley —


I am giving you an answer — but I cannot subvert process or ignore the science and evidence around the issues.

Photo of Peter McReynolds Peter McReynolds Alliance

Will the Minister detail the practical benefits of the soil nutrient health scheme?

Photo of Andrew Muir Andrew Muir Alliance

I thank the Member for his question. I will give you a practical example of that. When I was doing farm visits on Friday in the upper Bann catchment area with the Rivers Trust and the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI), I saw clearly what the benefits are. The farmer had participated in the scheme. He had the information presented on maps that he had available on a computer and had printed off. He was able to identify the areas where there were issues with water gathering and how we manage that but also where to grow crops and how to manage the farm more effectively. That was allowing the business to be more productive while managing water quality in our riverways, and that catchment area leads into Lough Neagh. There is a practical benefit where data, knowledge and evidence are power to allow us to make the change. My colleagues across the rest of the UK and Ireland have been speaking to me about the scheme and saying that they see it as a model that can be rolled out in areas in their jurisdiction. That is one of many examples of stuff that has been going on. Hopefully, we can pull together and profile much more across Northern Ireland.

Photo of William Irwin William Irwin DUP

My colleague Mr Buckley raised concerns about planning applications. It is a major issue on the ground. We have had planning applications in for two to three years and there is still no response. Farming needs to be able to compete in the modern world. We produce food. It is our main industry in Northern Ireland. This situation cannot go on, and the Minister needs to address it. I do not think that he answered Mr Buckley's question.

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

Minister, I did not detect a question, but you are free to respond.

Photo of Andrew Muir Andrew Muir Alliance

You are OK.

I am trying to address that issue, but it is important that I am guided by the science and evidence. It is important that the industry is successful, but it is also important that it is sustainable. Producers and consumers look to the product to make sure that it is made in a manner that safeguards our environment, and I am very aware of that. We cannot, on one hand, debate motions time after time in this place about the environment and Lough Neagh but, on the other hand, say, "Cast aside the evidence and science and just rock on". We cannot do that. We have to be guided by the evidence and science and find a sustainable way forward. I am committed to engaging with relevant stakeholders on the issue, but I am also prepared to make sure that I do things correctly, and that is what I have committed to do as Minister. I am not short-circuiting processes or the evidence and science that is presented to me, because, if I do that, the first thing that will happen is that I will end up in court.

Photo of Robbie Butler Robbie Butler UUP

I thank the Minister for his statement. It is a good statement. I do not profess to be an expert in all things agriculture, but I am the mental health spokesperson for the Ulster Unionist Party. Since 2016, in any debate that we have had in the Chamber on mental health and well-being, farmers and their families have been mentioned as being well up the list of those who are suffering. I know that the Minister supports those families and has warmth and affection for them. Will the Minister outline whether there is a template in the programme and policy changes that looks at the impact on the mental health and well-being of farmers and their families? How will they will be assisted when those things are rolled out?

Photo of Andrew Muir Andrew Muir Alliance

I thank the Member for his question. Thus far, I have not talked about that, and it is an important opportunity to outline my views. It particularly relates to our future rural development policy and how we support rural communities. It is also mainstreamed to ensure that staff and advisers who engage in the time ahead are properly trained for their engagement with the farming community.

In my time as Minister, I have seen a really committed community. I have seen many examples of good practice, but I also see examples of loneliness. I see examples of tough things happening on farms, and farmers often deal with those on their own or with just their husband or wife, which can be difficult. There are personal stories that I will not outline here today, but their challenges will remain with me for the rest of my life. I do this job because I want to change the situation. I want to give people the assurance that we have their backs, we want to support them, and we want to have a sustainable way forward.

Mental health is a key motivator for doing that. That is why I am conscious of the words that I say and the interventions that I make. We need to be conscious that we support people and are aware of the challenges that they face. It will be a key issue for me over the time ahead, particularly the training for staff but also seeing how we can talk about the current issues in our rural community.

Mental health is one massive issue. Perhaps we have not talked about it as much as we should, particularly among men. We need to break that taboo and have rational conversations around it. It would be good to work in partnership with organisations such as the Ulster Farmers' Union to see how we can chart our course forward.

Photo of Stewart Dickson Stewart Dickson Alliance

I thank the Minister for his statement and look forward to meeting him later this week at the Balmoral show. I also welcome the statement in advance of the Balmoral show. It is an opportunity for Members to debate the issues here today.

Minister, a lot of your statement was about building resilience. Will you tell the Assembly and the wider farming, agriculture and environmental community how you plan to build that resilience?

Photo of Andrew Muir Andrew Muir Alliance

Resilience is at the absolute core of what I have announced here today. We need to be clear that we have a strong, sustainable future ahead. That is not just in respect of government funding and policy. If you have a farm, you have a farm business, so you will potentially look to banks to borrow money, and the first thing that banks will see is whether you have resilience and long-term viability. That is something that I want to do. We need to have a scheme that allows farmers to withstand the shocks that come along. We also need to find ways that we can diversify and change. I have seen many good practices across Northern Ireland where farms that were once doing a different type of practice have changed in order to be resilient. That has allowed them to have security for the way ahead.

Resilience totally underpins everything that I do. There are many examples of good practice around that, but we need to mainstream that good practice and find a way that we can communicate better to make farmers more aware of the practices that are required to give that resilience and long-term sustainability.

Photo of Colin McGrath Colin McGrath Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Minister for his statement. It is 93 paragraphs of a superabundance of areas of operational responsibility. You never duck any questions that are asked on statements or at Question Time, which is welcome. In paragraph 20, you reference improving water quality across Northern Ireland. Will you enable your officials in the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) to work with me and the Loughinisland anglers to divert a Northern Ireland Water outflow pipe from a sewage plant? It runs into the lake and is potentially impacting on the fish stock. Can the NIEA help us with that?

Photo of Andrew Muir Andrew Muir Alliance

I thank the Member for his question. I answer questions because they are within my operational responsibility, but there are other areas that are not, and you would not expect me to answer those. I am aware of the issue that you outlined and have received press cuttings about it. Primarily, it is a Northern Ireland Water matter. If the Member writes to me, I will see what role the Environment Agency has in it.

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

I thank the Minister for his statement. I particularly welcome the greater focus on good environmental farm practice. In that context, how does today's announcement relate to actions required around making improvements to Lough Neagh?

Photo of Andrew Muir Andrew Muir Alliance

As regards the situation at Lough Neagh, which we debated yesterday, we are aware that a significant proportion, though not all, of the issues — approximately 60% — are due to agricultural run-off. We need to find a way forward to ensure that there is better water quality. Let us be clear: the issues of water quality are not confined to Lough Neagh. What I have outlined today is a way forward through education, engagement and conditionality with regard to support and cross-compliance penalties to ensure that we encourage farm businesses to move towards more sustainable practices that ensure that our waterways are more sustainable. That is absolutely key. I know that many farmers already do that, but we need to bring others on the journey.

Photo of Justin McNulty Justin McNulty Social Democratic and Labour Party

Talking of silos, as somebody from a farming background, it has been a few years since I stood on top of the silage pit, rolled back the polythene, threw the tyres back and graped silage down behind the feeding barrier into the link box.

With regard to your silo approach, you mentioned the importance of the food that we produce every day —

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

The Member must come to a question.

Photo of Justin McNulty Justin McNulty Social Democratic and Labour Party

— for every aspect of our well-being. How have you worked with other Departments to ensure that that is inculcated through Education, Health, Economy and, obviously, through your Department while avoiding a silo approach?

Photo of Andrew Muir Andrew Muir Alliance

I am avoiding a silo approach. As I have outlined to the Member previously, the food strategy framework is a key aspect of that. It is an overarching, cross-cutting strategy. It is in its final form, and I will bring it to the Executive for approval in the short time ahead. It is key that we do that and understand the benefits around it. I am engaged with ministerial colleagues on those issues because the agriculture, farming, food and fisheries industries that I am talking about and that we have discussed in the Chamber are a key part of the economy. We also need to understand the benefit of that and work together on the issues. I know the challenges that are there, particularly with regard to migration. We also know the issues that have been raised with me time and time again around that. That is why I want to work in partnership, not just with my Executive colleagues but with the UK Government on the actions that they need to take.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

In paragraph 45, we see platitudes about seeking simplification, but are the rest of those paragraphs not a chronicle of bureaucracy? I read about a number of conditionalities, new sustainability standards, compliance with multiple schemes and plans, farming for carbon and other qualifying hurdles. Are you not, in all of those schemes, still in the business of trussing up farming in more red tape? Is there no desire to cut, rather than increase, red tape?

Photo of Andrew Muir Andrew Muir Alliance

I outlined my desire to address those concerns. What I see daily are farm businesses that are already engaging with an awful lot of the stuff that I have outlined. They are engaging in those schemes and do not see an issue, because they understand the importance of productivity and of long-term sustainability for their businesses. What I am talking about is occurring across the rest of the UK and the rest of Europe. It is not surprisingly new; it is stuff that is already going on. I am committed to keeping an eye on the situation and making sure that we have simple and accessible schemes. That is important.

Photo of Claire Sugden Claire Sugden Independent

I thank the Minister for his statement. There are great farms in my constituency of East Londonderry, many of which are trying to diversify their farming businesses. However, one of the biggest challenges to that is planning, as mentioned by other Members. For example, Chestnutt Farm in Portrush — take the opportunity to visit it if you have not — has a milk vending machine and other farm shop type arrangements, but it is coming up against challenges with planning. How are you working with your planning colleagues in councils and the Communities Minister to address those issues?

Photo of Andrew Muir Andrew Muir Alliance

Planning in Northern Ireland is a key issue. It sits primarily with the Minister for Infrastructure. Last week, we talked about planning with regard to climate action and the need to ensure that we can progress planning applications for renewables. I am keen to explore that with the Minister because, ultimately, the responsibility for that lies with him. We also need to ensure that planning is sustainable. That is one of the issues that we need to address with regard to Lough Neagh, because we need to ensure that planning policy protects water quality in Northern Ireland.

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

That concludes questions on the statement from the Agriculture Minister. Members may take their ease while we change the Top Table.

(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Blair] in the Chair)