This time next year we should be in the final countdown ahead of a major overhaul of farm support in NI.
The big initial change is that 17% of the farm support budget (around £50m) will be hived off for a beef sustainability package to include payments for suckler cows and finished beef cattle.
The bulk of support will still be area-based, coming in the form of a new farm sustainability payment. However, DAERA officials are clear that in future years this money will gradually transition to agri-environment-type schemes.
Presumably we can still expect this sustainability payment to come in the autumn as with the current basic payment scheme. However, it is still unclear how a beef payment might work, and with a potential quota applying in the suckler scheme, and an overall limit of 352,000 for finished beef cattle, there is the likelihood that some of the money will not be paid until 2025. This will have implications for cashflow on farms.
But the main issue at present is whether, given the ongoing failure to form a Stormont Executive, any of this can happen in 2024 at all. New legislation will be required, so the longer Stormont is in limbo, the less likely an overhaul of farm schemes in 2024 actually is.
The same principle applies to plans to cull badgers in TB hotpot areas and tighter controls around Bovine Viral Diarrhoea (BVD). Both require legislation signed off by ministers.
Also looming large are the commitments set out in the Climate Change Act passed by Stormont in 2022, which require NI to set interim targets as part of getting all greenhouse gas emissions (excluding methane) to net zero by 2050.
The agri-food industry is up for the challenge, but we need the right financial incentives to restore peatland, grow trees and energy crops, and invest in renewable technologies. The longer these incentives are delayed, there is a danger than even more radical action will be required to meet future targets.