At a recent briefing of MLAs on the Stormont Agriculture committee, the environmental lobby in NI argued that direct payments to farmers should be rapidly transitioned to agri-environmental-type schemes.

Their view is that the new Farming with Nature package of measures should become the central pillar of future agricultural policy in NI by 2030. In the meantime, DAERA should provide clarity and a timeline around the transition from direct payments to agri-environment schemes.

If the Department followed that advice, what happens if farmers decide that new schemes are not sufficiently attractive, resulting in low initial uptake? With DAERA reliant on annual funding allocations from British Treasury, there is a danger unspent monies would be lost for good.

As a result, the preferred (and correct) approach from the Department is based on money being allocated to these schemes dependent on the level of interest from farmers – a so-called “pull rather than push approach”.

It is also worth remembering that direct payments already come with many conditions linked to the environment, animal welfare and food safety. This list is going to be added to in future years as we roll out the likes of carbon benchmarking, so it is wrong of the green lobby to give the impression these payments simply support production.

As for the new Farming with Nature scheme, DAERA has said it will deliver a pilot programme ahead of a full launch in 2026. The new scheme will initially focus on improving farm habitats, with the Department promising it will be significantly more financially attractive for farmers than the existing Environmental Farming Scheme (EFS).

Even if that is the case, it is impossible to plant trees, hedgerows, etc, without incurring some level of cost.

The direct payment pot of money in NI has remained reasonably static for nearly 20 years, so it is already being eaten away by inflation, never mind by costs incurred in agri-environment schemes. Government can’t continue to expect farmers to do more and more, for less.