The majority of NI farmers believe that having to meet environmental targets will ultimately lead to lower farm incomes, a major survey undertaken by the Ulster Farmers’ Union and the Irish Farmers Journal has shown.

Conducted at the 2023 Balmoral Show, the survey asked farmers for their views on the potential impact on incomes from new environmental targets, including those related to greenhouse gas emissions.

As shown in Figure 1, 70% believe that putting measures in place to meet environmental targets will ultimately hit incomes. A further 26% think they will have no effect, while 4% believe the impact on farm incomes could be positive.

The survey also highlighted that DAERA has major work to do both to convince farmers around the direction of travel for agricultural policy, and to inform and educate about what its proposals actually entail.

The majority of farmers admit to having a limited knowledge of DAERA’s future policy proposals (Figure 2).

Despite that, most are not convinced by headline measures, including a gradual shift from area-based payments to agri-environment type schemes (Figure 3), with a ‘Farming with Nature’ package to be the “central plank of agricultural support” in the future.

The vast majority of farmers don’t want to give up their farm land for wildflower meadows, trees etc (Figure 4).

In addition, most farmers want a new farm sustainability payment, which is to replace the current basic payment scheme (BPS), to come with a reasonably high payment rate (Figure 5).

Our survey found that 62% of farmers think it should have payment rates of at least £100 per acre (the current BPS is around £117/acre). Just 12% of farmers opted for a rate below £50/acre.

Long term, DAERA has said this payment will be set at a level that “does not blunt innovation or productivity”.

Beef payment

As part of the Department’s future agricultural policy there are also plans to shave 17% off the overall payment pot to fund measures to improve profitability and environmental sustainability in the beef sector, with headage payments for sucklers and finished beef cattle. Our survey asked farmers for their views on the principle of using headage payments to support incomes and encourage change on farms. Attitudes were split, with the majority against (Figure 6).

UFU president reacts to survey findings

Commenting on the results of the survey, UFU president David Brown said farmers are willing to do their bit to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but are worried about how they will keep their family businesses viable due to environmental targets.

“This highlights the need for DAERA to work with farmers and restore their confidence, so that farmers know that their environmental efforts and efficient practices will benefit their farm business,” he said.

He also pointed to the survey result which highlighted that 60% of farmers have “limited knowledge” of DAERA’s future agricultural policy proposals.

“This shows the massive piece of ‘communications work’ that DAERA has to do with farmers before future policy proposals are implemented in 2024/25,” said Brown.

A good year but stressors remain

The Balmoral Show survey also asked farmers about the last 12 months, when input costs were up, but were matched with record prices in some sectors, particularly in dairy and beef.

As shown in Figure 7, over half of respondents describe the last 12 months as being a good year for NI farming.

However, aside from incomes, there are other issues that add to pressure on farmers, particularly around Red Tractor/Farm Quality Assurance inspections and bovine TB tests (Figure 8).

Range of farmers in survey

Of those completing the survey, 59% were full-time farmers in NI, 36% farmed part-time, and 5% described their business as a hobby farm. Just over half (55%) farmed predominantly in lowland areas.

One-quarter said their main enterprise was dairy, one-quarter were mainly beef farmers, while 18% had predominantly sheep, followed by those with mixed farms, arable crops and poultry.

A big thank you to everyone who took time to fill in the survey.

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