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The future of agriculture in Northern Ireland is very uncertain and unpredictable.
In Northern Ireland about 75 per cent or around 1 million hectares of Northern Ireland’s countryside is farmed in one way or another. And is for the most part focused on livestock production, with around 2.7 million sheep and 1.7 million cattle grazing on grassland which accounts for 78% of the agricultural land available. Of the total farmed area, 54% consists of improved grassland, 36% is unimproved and semi-natural and just 5.5% is tilled for arable production. Although the horticultural industry (mainly made up of apples and mushrooms) covers a small area of land, it is financially very valuable to the economy, especially in County Armagh. The industry is vital for the NI economy, employing over 3.5 per cent of the total workforce. This figure over and above the UK average of 1.2 per cent.
Geography and topography are major factors that determine the amount of food that can be grown or the number of animals, that can be reared for human consumption. This also has an influence on crop cultivation because different crops prefer different soils. In some regions like the Ards Peninsula, a lot of Root and Leafy Green Vegetables are grown, because the soil type and climate are favourable and thus, leads to higher yields. In contrast, regions like the Mourne Mountains with their Granite Peaks and bogy valleys are not suitable for the growing of arable crops. This region is more suitable for hill farming where sheep are reared, as there can thrive on the poor pasture of the mountains. The breeds that are selected must be able to live off the hill all year-round while being able to product quality lambs for the food chain. The breeds of sheep selected to be farmed in the Mournes include Scottish Blackface which can be usual found grazing the higher peaks. Whereas on the lower slopes breeds such as Cheviot are more commonly found. Hill farming also benefits the Mournes themselves, because as the sheep graze, they aid towards the maintenance of the ecological balance and distinctive landscape of mountains.
Northern Ireland’s farmers are getting older, which will pose a major problem for the future of the industry. The median age of Northern Ireland farmers (58 years), according to a survey by DARD in 2010. The survey just 4% of Northern Ireland farmers were aged under 35 in 2013 which was drop from the 5% of farmers under 35 in 2010.The survey also highlighted that the ages of farmers differed for each business size; on very small farms, 36% were aged 65 or more, compared with 25% on small and 20% on medium or large farms. This poses a big problem to the future of agriculture in Northern Ireland because older farmers are less likely to invest in their farms and adopt new technology than the younger generation would. For, Northern Ireland to be able to produce locally produced, high-quality food, then younger people need to select a career in farming. We need to support farmers to become more productive, and therefore more viable. It’s very unjust and unsustainable to expect farmers to earn less than what they invest back into their farms.
The varying climate is yet another factor that affects the future of agriculture in Northern Ireland. The climate in Northern Ireland is warm and damp. The province has a significant rainfall. The reason for that is that Northern Ireland is situated in the centre of the Gulf Stream, this brings warming water from Mexico to Northern Ireland. Therefore, snow in Northern Ireland is quite rare and the temperature usually so mild. This means that lush grass is grown easily. Therefore, a lot of the region’s agricultural land is made up of Grassland Pasture. However, Northern Ireland like the rest of the world is starting to feel the effects of Global Warming and changes to the Northern Irish Climate. This could be a positive for the industry, the warmer and drier summers could allow for more arable crops and fruits to be grown. Yet other crops could have lower yields over reaching maturity more rapidly. It likewise would mean a reduction in the time for housing of livestock such cattle in the winter. At present, most cattle need to be housed and fed on forage crops e.g. silage as well as animal concentrates. This is due to the lack of grass Growth in the Winter months and increased rainfall.
Nonetheless, climate change also poses many problems to Agriculture in Northern Ireland. The higher temperatures in Summer will result in Heat stress in livestock, especially in dairy cows and this may reduce milk production. In upland areas such as the Mourne Mountains, intense rainfall could result in greater soil erosion. Warmer temperatures in summer and lower rainfall may lead to a in loss of carbon from the soil, particularly in peatland soils, with consequences for soil structure and fertility. The risk of river flooding across the province is expected to rise in the future, affecting crop and pasture production on land near to rivers. Finally, in areas near the coast, the rising sea levels will result in a loss of land and flooding will become more frequent, which will mean that farming in these areas can no longer continue .
Brexit is a major factor that will affect the future of agriculture in Northern Ireland over the coming decades. Firstly, Agriculture in Northern Ireland when compared to rest of the UK, remains a significant industry. Agriculture accounts for 1% of Northern Ireland’s Gross Value Added (GVA), which is higher than the UK figure of 0.6%. Local farm incomes are massively dependent on direct income support in the form of the EU’s Basic Payment Scheme, which is the essential fundamental of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Without these payments, many farms simply could not remain viable and continue to operate in the future. A significant reduction in the number of farmers in Northern Ireland and could also have a wider impact on the rural economy generally. Throughout the Brexit negotiations, Agriculture seems to be away down the list. It is uncertainties whether the UK Government will continue to offer direct support to farmers in the future.
Another implication of Brexit is the protection of local food. Currently in Northern Ireland ,Armagh Bramley apples, Lough Neagh eels and Comber early potatoes are protected. These food products are special because of their specific relationship with a particular area and their uniquely distinctive features. This protective status promotes the products across EU countries, and this can be a major benefit in increasing sales. However, post Brexit will this protective status continue? Another major implication of Brexit is the membership of the Single Market that currently allows for trade to function across the border with the Republic. An example of how important membership of the Single Market is the effect it will have on the Dairy Industry. In 2015, 594’000’000 litres of milk were imported into the Republic of Ireland for processing by creameries, with the bulk of the supply coming from Northern Ireland. This imported milk accounts for just over 25% of Northern Ireland’s annual milk supply in 2015. Thus, any alteration to the current single market arrangements could have a huge blow on the movement of agricultural products across the Island. It has been also suggested by the Ulster Farmers Union’s beef and sheep chairman Sam Chesney that Brexit could have a devastating impact on the Sheep sector in Northern Ireland. If there were to be a no-deal Brexit, then the introduction of high-priced tariffs may price local lamb producers out of the French market. This would be a problem for the sheep sector in the province, since the main export market is France, which more than 50% of NI Lamb exports end up.
Energy usage will be a challenge for agriculture in the future. Farms will have to become more have to become more efficient when it comes to the use of renewable energies. One way in which farms utilize a more environmentally friendly of Powering their enterprise is to install an Anerobic Digestor. The process of Anaerobic digestion is a natural process in which bacteria in an oxygen-free environment decompose organic matter such, resulting in a biogas and a sludge. The biogas can be burnt to power electricity generators, provide heat and the sludge can be spread onto the land as fertiliser to improve soil structure. This method is great as Farmers can but their waste to use, which will help to reduce the pollution of waterways. Another benefit from the installation of an anerobic digestor is the surplus electricity that is generated can be sold back to the national grid. On a recent educational visit to Gilfresh Produce in Loughgall Co. Armagh my class was shown the company’s newly installed system. Gilfresh Produce digestor uses 120 tonnes per week of waste vegetables being used to generate enough energy to power the factory. All excess energy will be sold back to the grid. In the future anerobic digestors may become more accessible to smaller farmers across the province, which would help to reduce pollution of the countryside, as this much method less not as likely to bring about environmental pollution when compared to spreading untreated organic waste on land by means of a Dung Spreader or Slurry Tanker. Another benefit of the fertilizer that is generated from the digestor is that its effects are better for soil nutrition and will enhance it for a longer period than untreated farmyard manure or Slurry.
At present, from midnight of the October 15th to midnight of the 31st of January a Ban is imposed on farmers from spreading any organic manure besides from farmyard manure and dirty water to any land. This can pose several problems to farmers, for instance because they are not allowed to spread slurry onto their land, they may need to rent extra housing or use extra straw bedding. Straw bedding has taken a sharp rise in price over the last few years due to unsuitable conditions, this means it would add an extra cost to the already expensive costs of housing livestock. However, Slurry is not as beneficial to soil nutrient as Farmyard Manure. A leading agricultural advisor Bryan Nicolson states “that muck is worth £9.20/t and a cubic metre of slurry has a value of £3.20 in NPK alone. These products have real financial value for the farm – but only if they are stored and used correctly.” (Agriland 2017) Therefore in the future, farmers should be advised to reduce the amount of chemical fertiliser and slurry they use to increase soil fertility and Nutrional content.
Ammonia presents another challenge to agriculture in Northern Ireland. Ammonia is an air pollutant, that is mainly sourced from common agriculture practices, for example the storage and spreading of slurry, farm yard manure and fertiliser or livestock housing. Ammonia is known to damage plant biodiversity, like moorland and bogs that are home to an array of rare plants and animals, it is also known to effect human health. The Northern Ireland environment agency have designed a block to any further development of Agriculture at farm level based on modelling of ammonia which they say is affecting our special habitats. Planning cannot be granted for any expansion or replacement of existing farm buildings sheds under these rules with their desired outcome to deintensification farming in general across Northern Ireland. As a result of their actions numerous farm businesses would become unsustainable and therefore would no longer be a feasible business venture and thus the number of farms would shrink. Therefore, it is a lot scientific research that would need to be carried out on the actual ammonia levels rather than the computer modelling that the agency is currently implementing. This would give reassurance to farmers that they could their livelihoods wouldn’t not be affected by the environment agency’s aims. Genetically modified crops in the future will pose many challenges to Agriculture in Northern Ireland. “Genetic modification (GM) is the use of modern biotechnology techniques to change the genes of an organism” (agric.wa.gov.au/2018). These Crops could help farmers here to have more predictable Crop yields, which would allow them to be reassured that they will to be able grow enough produce to sell from year to year. Another advantage of GM Crops over traditional crops is that they require less herbicides and insecticides, which will eventually make the soil unusable. This allows the soil to gain back its nutrient base over time. As a result of the genetic resistance within the plants, the farmer will still be able to succeed in getting a predictable yield at the same time as maintain the soil nutrient base. Nonetheless, there are several disadvantages that GM Crops present to Farmers. Firstly, if you choose to grow these crops you will have a greater liability. This is since these plants develop seeds, they have the potential to pollinate with non-GM Crops. This would mean that the non-GM Crops may have their plant structures modified, thus meaning that their neighbour’s crop could be altered. Another reason which GM Crops present a problem to Farmers in the province, is that the EU has currently bans the Cultivation of them. In 2017, most EU nations voted against genetically modified crops from being cultivated. Yet they didn’t ban these crops being imported for animal feed.
The final challenge facing Primary Producers in Northern Ireland is the eradication of TB (Bovine Tuberculosis) which is a respiratory disease that effects mainly cattle. TB eradication is crucial in this province because Northern Ireland has one of the densest populations of cattle in the UK. Cattle farming (both Beef and Dairy) is the main commodity sector in NI. This means that the spread of TB throughout herds across the province will have a negative effect on the majority of farms. At the moment all programme is not resulting in a reduction in disease levels. Therefore, farmers are unclear whether testing cattle for TB is working at all. Another factor that is debatable about the spread of TB is the culling of badgers, as it was discover in 1971 that a badger killed in Gloucestershire, which was a hot-spot for TB, was found to be carrying the disease. This has since prompted the debate whether Badgers should be culled, as they don’t contribute to the food supply chain and threaten the livelihoods of farmers.
- Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (2017). Northern Ireland Agricultural Census for 2017. Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs: Belfast. [Accessed 29/10/18].
- www.rspb.org.uk [online]. (2017). Available from: <https://www.rspb.org.uk/about-the-rspb/at-home-and-abroad/northern-ireland/>. [Accessed 10/10/18].
- anaerobic-digestion.com [online]. (2018). Available from: <https://blog.anaerobic-digestion.com/anaerobic-digestion-vs-composting/>. [Accessed 20/11/18].
- www.rspb.org.uk [online]. (2018). Available from: <Read more at https://www.rspb.org.uk/about-the-rspb/at-home-and-abroad/northern-ireland/farminginnorthernireland/#MWAI5mULkAPz9mjo.99>. [Accessed 1/11/18].
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