Rebuilding beef exports, resolving outstanding single farm payment issues and securing a workable nitrates action programme are the three top priorities of Co Tyrone beef and sheep farmer Kenneth Sharkey, who has recently taken over as president of the Ulster Farmers Union.

“Exports of beef have already started and I don’t see too many problems in growing the meat trade,” he said.

But re-establishing the live export trade presents a much greater challenge, despite the fact the first shipment of black-and-white calves has recently left a farm in Co Down destined for Belgium and Holland.

“With pressure on milk prices, there is no doubt that we need these markets,” he said.

“But given our location and the time it takes to haul livestock that far, it’s not going to be easy.”

One option would be to take live calves via the Republic of Ireland rather than via the UK mainland.

Another option might be to commission a boat to take calves direct to northern France.

“Whatever we do, we won’t compromise on welfare standards,” said Mr Sharkey.

On single farm payments, the main issue is still the problem of duplicate fields – where two parties have accidentally claimed entitlement on the same parcel of rented land and face penalties.

“We want the department of agriculture to allow one party to withdraw their claim without penalty,” said Mr Sharkey.

“These were genuine mistakes arising from the confusion in the first year of the scheme.

The total amount of money available to Northern Ireland has not changed.”

Where the duplicate claim represents more than 20% of a farmer’s total claim, he could lose his entire SFP.

“Brussels has said it is a local issue, which must be resolved locally, but so far DARD has stuck to the regulations.

We are therefore taking the legal route and have issued forms to our members for them to lodge an appeal.”

The third big issue is the nitrates action programme.

Mr Sharkey is adamant that any scheme must be workable and affordable at farm level.

This will mean additional funding for the Farm Nutrient Management Scheme.

“We have a political commitment that funding will be sought for all applicants to the scheme.

We also wish to see the timescale for the completion of works extended until at least the end of 2008.”

Mr Sharkey says making progress on these and other issues would be a lot easier if the province had a bit of political stability.

“We’re now into our third agriculture minister since direct rule from London was re-established in 2002.

“Each time we get a new minister, we have to start again from scratch, explaining the issues and trying to convince them of the need for funding.

What we need is a local minister, with local knowledge and local accountability.”

philip.clarke@rbi.co.uk