NI’s £25 million Covid-19 support will ‘go to those who need it most’

Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs Minister Edwin Poots has said Northern Ireland’s £25 million Covid-19 support fund will be “targeted towards those most in need”.

It comes as talks have begun into how the money should be divvied up.

Farmers For Action had called for the money to be split among all farmers equally; however, Minister Poots the allocation must be evidence-based.

Minister Poots made the comments following a Private Members’ Motion in the Assembly this week on the issue.

Speaking after the motion, the Minister said: “In May, the NI Executive announced funding of £25 million for a Covid-19 support package – the most generous allocation made by any UK or EU administration for the agriculture and horticulture sectors during the coronavirus emergency.

“Since then, I have consulted with numerous industry representatives and stakeholders, including organisations, businesses and farmers from the red meat supply chain, the dairy processors and farmers and the farming unions to hear their analysis of the impacts of the pandemic and their proposals for allocation of the £25 million.

During those discussions, there was a clear acceptance of the need for support to be targeted at those farm business hardest hit financially as a direct result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Minister was clear about his approach: “This is not about singling out specific sectors or farm types; this is about stabilising our entire agricultural community by helping those hit hardest, deal with short-term disruptions that would substantially threaten otherwise viable businesses.

“It is my intention to ensure the funding is driven towards those most in need and those who can clearly demonstrate tangible loses as a result of Covid-19.

“Those working in the industry, or who have a clear understanding of how it operates, will know that by taking this approach, the ripple effect will help support our agricultural communities and ensure that businesses can be sustainable and continue trading in the long term.”

Union proposals

The Ulster Farmers’ Union met with Minister Edwin Poots earlier this month. The discussion took place over Zoom and also included representatives from the Livestock and Meat Commission (LMC) and Northern Ireland Meat Exporters Association (NIMEA).

Beef and lamb chairman Sam Chesney requested £13.2 million for the beef sector and £270,000 for the lamb sector.

An LMC-commissioned independent study with The Andersons Centre, showed that at the height of the pandemic, beef farmers incurred a loss of £238/carcass, and sheep farmers £31 / lamb carcass.

Beef finishers also took a severe hit as they were unable to source cattle. Data from the LMC showed movements were down 37,000 (55%) during lockdown, severely affecting finishers gross margins.

“The beef sector was first hit by the pandemic in late December when the Chinese market went into lockdown followed by the EU market. Italy is a major EU market for quality leather production and with the severe lockdown, this knock-on effect came very quickly to NI producers.

“This resulted in £40-£50/head prices that fell well below the three-year average. Farm-gate prices were aggravated further when the UK went into lockdown.

“The closure of the foodservice sector became the final nail in the coffin for many beef and sheep producers and this then exacerbated an already bad situation.

“We were expecting prices to rise this year and it was badly needed after the losses incurred over the past few years, but then the Covid-19 outbreak happened.

Beef and sheep farmers are worse off than ever before, and many were not able to draw support from the self-employment scheme.

“Therefore, it is vital that the funding for the agri-food sector is allocated to those farmers who suffered the most loss.

“The focus must be on slaughtered cattle in Northern Ireland and slaughtered lambs in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland,” said Chesney.

Chesney said that as a result, the union wanted to see £50/head paid on cattle in the first six months of 2020 and a further £60/head during the seven-week period from the end of March.

“For lamb, a payment of £8/lamb slaughtered for the four-week period ending on March 28 to week ending on April 18 is needed,” he said.