While 89% of eligible farmers in Zone 1 did eventually sign up to the soil nutrient health scheme, there is still a prevailing sense of uneasiness among many farmers about participating in the AFBI-led initiative. The rest of NI is to be sampled over the next three years.

Fundamentally, the concern remains that soil sample results could at some point in the future be used against farmers, especially if stricter rules are enforced around spreading of slurry on high phosphorus (P) index land.

Last July, then Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots gave an assurance that individual farm data would not be used for any enforcement purpose by his officials. It was a clear statement, which has drawn a definite line in the sand.

But at the same time, it would be naïve to think that DAERA officials and especially those within its NI Environment Agency (NIEA) won’t be poring over the analysis of collective results, and potentially using this to justify tighter rules.

But is there really an alternative for farmers? Soil analysis provides vital information on which to create nutrient management plans.

Using that knowledge will ultimately save farmers money while helping to protect the environment. There is no shortage of slurry in NI so we must use it well, and that means targeting it at the land that needs it most.

The other important issue coming at farmers is the whole area of carbon audits, being driven by a proposed new Sustainability Body in NI.

Given that so much of the debate around carbon is underpinned by flawed logic, it is understandable that farmers are anxious.

And with audits to be compulsory as part of farm quality assurance schemes, it adds to the sense that this is being forced on the industry. These audits bring hassle we could all do without.

But we can’t ignore the issue, and the intention is simply to provide a baseline for each sector. It is then up to policymakers to put the right financial incentives in place to drive positive change. Without those incentives, none of this will work.

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