COMMENT: Finding ways to fund the next rural development programme is only one of the challenges that will confront the farming and food sectors over the coming months. One could argue that by far the biggest of these is that of finding a detailed Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) Reform settlement that will best suit the industry as a whole.

And the clock is ticking. In reality the Agriculture Minister has only a number of weeks to settle on the detailed CAP regulations, which must be enshrined in national regulation in time for the new measures to kick in some 12 months hence.

There are many issues that must be proactively addressed by all of the farming organisations and relevant stakeholder groups as the industry seeks to get its house in order. Perhaps the most contentious of these is the definition of what constitutes an ‘active farmer’. Brussels has been extremely slow to come up with any form of guidance on this matter.

This is more than surprising, given that EU Commissioner Ciolos has gone to great lengths in emphasising its importance in the context of the overall reform process. Prior to Christmas there were signs that the Commission would allow individual members states to enshrine its own definition of what constitutes an active farmer in national legislation. Let’s hope this is indeed the case.

There’s no doubt that the needs of farmers in this part of the world are entirely different to those of their counterparts in Southern or Eastern Europe. Flexibility will be a word that crops up a lot over the coming weeks when it comes to debating the overall make up of the final reform deal. For the first time each member states will have the scope to come up with measures that fit the needs of its own farmers. In the past Brussels came forward with its own ‘one cap fits all’ approach.

The current debate on how best to fund the next rural development programme is proof positive that it can take a certain amount of time to come up with a package of measures – and the finances- to best meet the needs of the farming and food sectors as whole. So when it comes to settling the detail of the new  measures, there is an onus on all the various stakeholder groups to play a proactive role in the process – rather than simply waiting to criticise the proposals that will eventually emanate from the Department of Agriculture.

Pictured Agriculture Minister Michelle O’Neill MLA speaks with Simon Coveney TD, Minister of Agriculture Food & Marine at the North-South agricultural sector meeting at the NSMC offices in Co. Armagh late last year