The Focus Farms Centre, based at Ballycraigy, as an integral part of the Countryside Agri-Rural Partnership, has confirmed that the current Focus Farms programme has attracted 10,000 visitors over the past 31 months, encompassing 6,000 individuals and 700 groups.
The Focus Farms’ initiative is funded under Axis 1 of the Rural Development Programme. It aims to contribute to the creation of a more competitive agriculture industry through the provision of farmer-led training to farmers.
“We have secured our four year visitor target in less than three,” explained Dr Sam Campbell, the man who heads up the Focus Farms’ Centre.
“These figures reflect the tremendous success of the current programme to date. Obviously, we want to build on this for the future. The programme is centered on visits to 55 Focus Farmers covering 10 enterprises. An additional 6 Focus Farmers have been appointed with specific interests in beef, sheep and organic production.”
In addition to the specifically hosted visits, the current grouping of Focus Farm venues has been used to help deliver environmental training initiatives: specifically Cross Compliance, Farm Waste Management and Field Boundary workshops. These additional training opportunities have been delivered by a group of 20 environmental instructors.
“Approximately 6,000 farmers have taken part in these environmental training initiatives to date,” Sam Campbell continued.
“It is, also, our intention to build on this high interest & uptake level over the coming months.”
“But statistics of this type do not tell the real story behind the success of the current Focus Farms’ initiative.
“The reality is that most farmers now fully recognise the need to improve their business performance levels. And the option of visiting a colleague and assessing how that person has achieved significant improvements of this nature, against a wholly commercial background, makes the Focus Farms’ experience all the more tangible, rewarding and relevant.
“At the end of the day Focus Farmers are working with the same banks and supply companies as every other producer in Northern Ireland. They give hope that it is possible to achieve meaningful improvements in gross margins and profits against the unending pressure of higher input costs and increasing bureaucracy.
“But above all else Focus Farmers are proof positive that meaningful change can be affected within agriculture here in Northern Ireland by producers concentrating on what is actually happening within their own businesses, and not beyond the farm gate.”
Sam Campbell went on to point out that the principle of allowing small groups only to take part in a specific farm visit works tremendously well.
“The programme has been structured so as to allow the host farmer engage at length with points brought up by individual visitors. Peer training has worked in other sectors of industry for many years. The good news is that the approach has most definitely gained a strong foothold within local agriculture, courtesy of the Focus Farms Programme.”
The team at the Focus Farms’ Centre has also been charged with the responsibility encouraging the greater use of benchmarking within the local farming sector. This work is headed up by veterinarian Brian Kennedy, who co-ordinates the recruitment of farmers, the collection and collation of data and the forwarding of all relevant information to CAFRE. The role of the college is to analyse the data, quality assure the benchmarking figures, send out reports to the farmers and provide advice based on the information.
Benchmarking is also funded under Axis 1 of the Rural Development Programme. It aims to contribute to the creation of a more competitive agricultural industry through the provision of quality information to farmers and growers from which they can make business decisions.
“And here again we have a good news story to tell,” stressed Sam Campbell.
“The number of farmers participating in the current benchmarking scheme has doubled, from 900 less than three years ago to 1,800 today.”
“We have seen most of this growth taking place in the dairy beef and sheep sectors. However, all farm businesses will benefit from their participation in the benchmarking scheme. There is no cost involved, and the information generated is made available to individual producers on a totally confidential basis.”
Adding significantly to the impetus generated by the two aforementioned programmes is the appointment of Eamonn Matthews to the position Focus Farms and Benchmarking Liaison. A native of Glenarm in Co Antrim, he comes from a mixed beef, sheep and renewable energy background.
Eamonn is a graduate in Agriculture and Rural Development from Writtle College in Essex. Prior to taking up his current position he had worked with DARD Veterinary Division in Larne, following which he was centrally involved in the development of a number of Leader Plus Programmes in the North Antrim area. Eamonn also holds a post graduate diploma in Rural Development form Queen’s University Belfast.
“Eamonn’s appointment represents a tremendous boost for both the Focus Farms and Benchmarking Programmes,” confirmed Sam Campbell.
“His background in both production agriculture and diversification measures makes him well suited to carry on the work undertaken over the past three years.”
Completing the management team at Ballycraigy is Pamela Dennison, the Focus Farms and Benchmarking measures Administrator. She has been working on both programmes since the inception of the current rural development measures and has forged a close working relationship with all of the focus farmers and many of those producers now actively involved in benchmarking. Pamela is an active member of Rathmore YFC and has a strong farming and rural background.
Sam Campbell again:
“The Focus Farms and Benchmarking Programmes constitute a tremendous training and business development resource for every farm businesses in Northern Ireland.”
“Participation in both schemes is free and I would encourage those producers who have not availed of benchmarking and/or a Focus Farms’ visit to give this matter their active consideration.”
To participate in a Focus Farms’ visit: telephone – 0845 0267536. To find out more about benchmarking: telephone 08450267537