Ulster Unionist Agriculture Spokesperson Jo-Anne Dobson MLA has urged the Agriculture Minister to update her Department’s contingency plans for handling severe weather conditions.
Mrs Dobson was making her comments following a meeting organised by her colleague Robin Swann MLA between North Antrim farmers and members of the Agriculture Committee at Stormont. She said: “Farmers in the hardest hit areas are still enduring real hardship because of the damage caused to their livelihoods as a result of the severe weather conditions.
“Lessons must be learnt, and learnt quickly, to ensure that in any future crisis the Department are in a much better position to deliver immediate help to farmers.
“I have written directly to Minister O’Neill urging her to conduct a review of all contingency arrangements to make sure that we can reduce the damage caused to our farmers and the industry in the future.
“As yet, DARD has not published the arrangements for the ‘limited hardship payments’ for farmers affected in the recent crisis. In future this help must be delivered much faster if it is to achieve the maximum benefit for farmers. Hardship payments are of little use to farmers if the money stays in DARD’s bank account for weeks on end.
“To help resolve this, The Minister should set up a contingency fund which would enable financial help to be readily available, and therefore quickly distributed to farmers, in the event of a crisis. A fund to which farmers could ‘bid’ if they feel that they have suffered as a result of conditions beyond their control.
“I have suggested to the Minister that she raise this issue with her Executive Colleagues in a bid to help and indeed reassure farmers that in the future help will be at hand. Agriculture after all is our single biggest industry – helping our farmers get back onto their feet as quickly as possible following a crisis benefits the entire Northern Ireland economy.
“The Minister also needs to make every effort to ensure that rural development funding is not returned to Europe, but rather prioritised to help our rural communities when they need it the most.
“Other simple steps could be taken, like ensuring that all farmers in severely affected areas are contacted directly by the Department who can work out their immediate needs and react much faster to meet them.
“This isn’t asking for much – the Department already have this information easily to hand. DARD are quick to get in touch with farmers if there are problems with their maps or applications, but some farmers I met in South Down who were in greatest need had not heard from them well into the crisis.
“Lessons must be learnt, and if they are I firmly believe that we can reduce the risks for the future. Failing to do so would leave livelihoods hanging in the balance, and pose a very real risk to the industry as a whole at a time when we need to encourage young farmers to take up the reigns.
“We also need to see action from the Minister to address the very serious issue of falling farm incomes. Reducing the risks associated with farming would be one way to instil confidence and ensure investment continues as we look to the future of the industry.”