25 February 2000

Dramatic changes ahead for NI arable farms

IF Northern Irelands arable sector is to prosper over the next twenty years, vastly fewer full-time farmers should be producing a range of strongly-branded added-value crops.

That was the take-home message from the Ulster Arable Societys annual meeting at Greenmount College last week. ICM techniques could also help enhance the sectors image, delegates heard.

"We are about to turn what you and I know and love on its head," said Melvyn Askew, head of Alternative Crops and Biotechnology at the Central Science Laboratory. "You cant keep producing commodity crops as individuals."

With wheat at only £60/t and the break-even point for many at £66/t, even good farmers will not survive, he maintained.

"You have to look to added-value products and operate as Northern Ireland plc." Mr Askew encouraged his audience to think of themselves not as farmers, but purveyors of plants that someone needs.

Willow, grown both for fuel and new plant protection molecules, has tremendous potential with environmental spin-offs, he claimed. But he ruled out miscanthus, even though the provinces climate is expected to become warmer and wetter.

More traditional crops may also merit a re-visit. "You once had a brilliant record in seed potatoes. But you screwed it up by sticking to Desiree. I believe you could get back in a big way with high grade Northern Ireland material by focussing on major growth areas such as South Africa, provided you apply the same grading and packing quality as before."

According to Paddy Campbell, winner of the UAS 1999 Travel Award, integrated farming methods can help restore consumer confidence in arable farming.

"We need to be pro-active in adopting ICM even if we are sceptical about it," said Mr Campbell after a visit to Denmark. "It has a lot of potential for creating a good image."

Key to furthering its uptake is greater collaboration between researchers and advisers to cut perceived risks. "In Denmark it has been difficult to get all the advisory services to pull together. Thank goodness we have the HGCA." &#42

NIfarm structure changing fast

THE trend to fewer farmers in NI has been going on since at least 1970, noted James Campbell of the Irish Farmers Journal. Then there were 40,000 working full-time – there may be only 13,000 by 2020. Between 1984 and 1995 cereal farmers fell from 7900 to 4400 and potato growers from 5700 to 1800. "My guess is that the number of full-time farmers will be considerably lower than 13,000. A lot will be part-time and many part-timers now will have dropped out."

Aiming to pick Dutch brains on behalf of Northern Ireland potato growers is Donna Course, Ballymoney Foods agronomist and winner of the Ulster Arable Societys 2000 Travel Award. Sending her on her way are Andrew Mathers (left), procurement manager for co-sponsor Wilsons Country and FWs Andrew Blake.