In 2020, support schemes across dairy, beef, sheep, potato and ornamental horticulture paid out nearly £20m for losses incurred due to COVID-19, and since March 2021 Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots has confirmed an additional £10.72m in aid for NI farmers.
This second package includes £2m for potato growers hit by a market downturn due to the pandemic, £4m for pig and poultry producers, and £1.27m to cover losses in the wool sector.
The remainder of the £10.72 is not COVID-19-related, but a £3.45m package to help cover losses incurred by farmers in the northwest as a result of the August 2017 floods.
All this financial support is welcome, and highlights just how important it is for the agri-food industry to have local politicians making decisions at Stormont. It is highly questionable what support, if any, would have been forthcoming if direct rule ministers were in place.
However, farmers in the northwest will rightly point to how long it has taken for that flood aid to materialise. Counterparts in Donegal impacted by the same weather event got compensated within months.
With Stormont suspended for three years from January 2017, DAERA senior civil servants insisted at the time that they did not have the power to sign off on a scheme. When Minister Poots did come into the post, the advice from his officials was that a compensation package no longer represented value for money, so he would have to direct them to bring forward compensation.
In the end, the £3.45m is a generous package when compared against the Donegal farmers who were limited to a total of €15,000, with an average payment around €2,400.
In NI, the cap has been set at £106,323, with an average for over 200 NI farm businesses at around £15,000.
While there has been some criticism that the aid is dependent on a farmer submitting a force majeure application in 2017 declaring that relevant parcels of land had become ineligible for payments, it was the clear advice at the time to complete this form.