It is exactly eight years ago that an Agri-Food Strategy Board made up of industry leaders, aided by senior government officials, and with the full backing of the Stormont Executive, launched a Going for Growth strategy at the 2013 Balmoral Show.
The target was to grow industry turnover by 60% in the 10-year period to 2020, and add 15% extra jobs. It was all part of rebalancing a NI economy too reliant on the public sector.
While we don’t yet have 2020 data, it is likely that the targets set in 2013 will have been met for many sectors, although it is important to point out that much of that growth is due to added value and inflationary increases, not more volumes per se.
Only the pig and poultry sectors have seen significant growth over the period, with cattle and sheep numbers largely unchanged.
After the Agri-Food Strategy Board stood down in August 2017, the narrative quickly changed among government officials, given a renewed focus on environmental issues.
Instead of talking about growth the new buzz word was productivity. It is one of four key desired outcomes identified in a DAERA future agricultural policy document published in 2018.
But even this concept of productivity (more efficient use of inputs) is now being questioned by some policymakers, particularly if better use of inputs involves increasing output from a farm.
The clear message from a largely ill-informed debate on the Climate Change Bill in the Stormont Assembly chamber on Monday is that the agri food industry should contract, not grow. It will be interesting to see how advice from the likes of CAFRE and AFBI adapts to this new world order.
The reality remains that more productive farms are more profitable farms. If it is going to be more profitable for a farmer to keep less livestock in the future, the financial incentives will need to be huge. The current £300m direct payment pot for NI farming won’t come close.