Agriculture Minister Michelle O'Neill announced Wednesday at a Northern Ireland Assembly hearing on the plight of farmers facing low prices and adverse weather the government will put more of the EU Single Farm Payment subsidies into their pockets.
"I have great sympathy with farmers as they struggle with rising production costs and problems stemming from difficult weather conditions," she said. "That is why today I have taken direct action to ensure that farmers will receive more money in their Single Farm Payment in 2013."
The Assembly's Agriculture and Rural Development Committee called on O'Neill to address what they called a crisis for the region's farmers, brought on not only by rising production costs and persistent bad weather, but also by "a lack of transparency in the supply chain."
Farmers blame Ulster's increasingly concentrated food production industry for unfairly and arbitrarily doling out "farm gate" prices much lower than those found elsewhere in Britain and in the Irish Republic.
O'Neill said the government next year would reduce by $24 million the amount of "modulation money" it now deducts from EU farm subsidies. The European Union gives member governments the ability to use the money for rural development programs.
"Other administrations in Britain will make use of this provision again (in 2013)," she said. "However, given the very real challenges facing our farmers, I have decided not to continue to apply voluntary modulation next year.
"This will provide some much needed additional income for farmers in their 2013 SFP payments and will help to stimulate the rural communities in which farmers live and spend their money."
The announcement came as warnings about the survival of Northern Ireland's farm sector have become more strident in recent months. Farmers say they're facing prices for meat, dairy, vegetables and other foodstuffs so low they won't cover the costs of production.
Agriculture and Rural Development Committee Chairman Paul Frew of the Democratic Unionist Party said the government needs to "acknowledge the crisis."
"More must be done to help our farmers receive a fairer price for their products, otherwise one of the most important industries in Northern Ireland could be in danger of collapse," he said.
"Unfairness" in the supply chain from farmer to supermarket shelf has been targeted by the Ulster Farmers Union for special criticism.
Organization President Harry Sinclair told the Northern Ireland publication Farming Life he applauded the government for being "pro-active" in scrapping the voluntary modulation for next year.
"Whilst farmers will see no immediate boost to their incomes, it is nevertheless a genuine move to assist them," he said.
But, he added, he also wants to see similar help "from our food chain partners.
"In 2012, the food chain has failed, with processors and retailers choosing to ignore farmers' rising costs but this is a short-sighted approach which is also bad news for consumers," Sinclair said.
O'Neill said she is "committed to lending my support to address any unfairness in the food supply chain," pointing to the forthcoming British law that will create an adjudicator to oversee the relationship between large supermarket chains and their suppliers.
"I welcome the forthcoming introduction of the Grocery Adjudicator Bill and have written to (Vincent Cable), the minister of Business, Innovation and Skills in Westminster, emphasizing the need for early introduction of an adjudicator with real power," she said.
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