Farmland in County Down, Northern Ireland© imageBROKER/Rex Shutterstock

Northern Ireland’s farmers are being urged to sign up to a new scheme that will see them formed into 160 discussion groups designed to improve their technical and management efficiency.

The business development groups (BDG) scheme is part of the 2014-2020 Rural Development programme.

The aim is that each BDG will comprise 15–20 like-minded farmers who will meet up to eight times a year to focus on topics agreed by the members.

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The group will be facilitated by a College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise development adviser and activities will include on-farm meetings, demonstrations and skills training.

Farmers participating in the scheme will be asked to benchmark their business to identify areas that have the potential to be improved.

They will also be helped to create a business development plan to identify actions that need to be taken to improve the technical efficiency of their farm.

For the first two years of the scheme, farm business owners will receive a support payment to facilitate their own, or a representative’s, involvement in the scheme.

If a farmer attends a minimum of six training events each year they will receive £367/year rising to £490/year where full attendance has been recorded.

Farm business owners will also receive a payment of £600/visit for hosting a training event.

Agriculture minister Michelle O’Neill said the scheme would help to deliver on the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development’s (Dard) commitment to playing a part in securing a sustainable and profitable farm base.

“I would encourage farmers to apply to the programme as local development groups are designed to help farmers come together with their peers, to learn about and enhance their knowledge of business management, new technologies and innovative ways of working.

“In these challenging times, this new programme will assist farmers in acquiring the skills necessary to help make the right decisions about their businesses for the future.”

The aim is that 3,000 farmers will be a member of a BDG by 2020.

Dard said the reason behind the scheme is that 15% of the people currently working in the NI agricultural industry do not have an agricultural qualification. This compares to 7% across other business sectors.

“This has led to a shortfall in management skills in relation to production, business, marketing and information and communication technology,” said the department.

“As a result, agri-food businesses are limited in their capacity to adapt to changing market demands and volatility.”

The window for applications opened on Monday 9 November and will run until 14 December.