Despite the recent increase in some farm gate returns, agriculture in Northern Ireland remains under real economic pressure. So it's appropriate to reflect on the impact that market trends will have on the farming industry during the period ahead.
Long gone are the days when intervention and export refunds would make the job of our marketers a relatively easy and straightforward one. The marketplace for food, both within Europe and beyond, is already extremely competitive and the likelihood is that things are not going to get any easier for our food processors as we move forward.
But competition is a good thing. Northern Ireland has many natural advantages: the challenge facing the food industry is that of best utilising the bountiful resources that surround us. By far the most valuable asset available to our agri-food industry is the skill and ability of the people actually working in it.
As a result we are well set up to respond creatively to the challenge of maintaining a viable farm sector in Northern Ireland. And the starting point for all this is the provision of training services which meet the needs of farmers on an ongoing basis.
The current Focus Farms programme, which is about to celebrate its first birthday, meets this requirement in an innovative way. One of the most interesting facets is the opportunity which the initiative provides for farmers to meet a number of their fellow colleagues, who have successfully diversified their businesses over recent years.
It is now widely accepted that simply maintaining an emphasis on commodity production is not the way forward for agriculture as a whole. We need to add value and come at the issue of utilising our rural resources in different ways. There is ample evidence to confirm that many farmers between the ages of 25 and 45 are keen to look at ways of diversifying their businesses. But they need role models, people who have already gone down this road and know the pitfalls to watch out for. And it is in this context that the Focus Farms programme continues to play an important role in meeting the future training needs of local agriculture head on.