MICHAEL DRAKE, MBE Agriculture Editor, Belfast Telegraph takes a look at the trauma many farmers faced in the past year.

Over the years Northern Ireland farmers had come to accept the trials and tribulations that came their way. Ever since the ending of World War II they had experienced several crises. The worst was in 1974 but with the passage of time it became little more than a distant memory.

Then along came the scourge of BSE - Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy - and while it destroyed valuable export markets producers came to live with its consequences and continued labouring the land. Nothing, however could have prepared them for what was to come. And it did.

Foot and Mouth, a disease which the province had not experienced for sixty years, was confirmed at an abattoir in Cheale, Essex on February 20 last. That is a date, which will be etched out in the minds of many Northern Ireland farmers for at least a generation to come.

The disease was detected in a consignment of pigs sent for slaughter. But the story did not end there. The disease passed rapidly through sheep flocks following purchases of the animals from large markets, especially one at Longtown, Cumbria. This was a contributing factor to the majority of outbreaks, which followed.

The uncontrolled movements of sheep in a three week period when the disease had not been detected is now held to be the single most important factor contributing to the occurrence of over 2,000 outbreaks across the United Kingdom Northern Ireland, it is felt, got off lightly.

Only four cases were detected in the province with a fifth just over the border. But a massive culling exercise involving thousands of cattle and sheep and necessary to halt the spread of FDM proved costly. Over £7m was paid to farmers in Northern Ireland whose herds and flocks were slaughtered. In the province almost 43,000 sheep, over 5,000 cattle and 3,600 pigs were culled because of FDM precautions.

There was anger in some quarters over the compensation paid to some farmers One Dumfriesshire farmer was reported to have received £4.2m - probably the biggest pay out made - while another in Northern Ireland was said to have received close on £1m for his hardship. Sadly the world outside farming read these payouts as equal to 'golden handshakes.' This was far from the truth.

During the culling exercises many valuable breeding bloodlines, stretching back over several animal generations came to an end. Only time will replace them. Financial compensation may help in allowing livestock farmers to buy in foundation stock again. But all the money in the world would not
replace overnight the painstaking efforts made over twenty or thirty years to replace the animals which
were taken out off the scene.

Michael Drake

For Ulster Farmers Union president Douglas Rowe it has been a hectic year. Now he looks to the way ahead. "Agriculture has been going for a long time and it will continue until the end of time." "Farmers have been dealt blow after blow but they have survived." "Over the centuries they have had to face change and in recent years those changes have come faster than in the past"

"Farmers have been under greater pressure during the past five years than they have experienced in the previous fifteen" "We may have had the minimum number of foot and mouth cases, for which we can thank God but it has all had a maximum effect on our industry."
For a safer future he believes there is a need for a permanent bio-security presence at Northern Ireland ports and airports. "We need eternal vigilance to keep not only FMD but many other diseases from the province."

Facing immediate disease problems in the herd of 1500 pigs (not the dreaded Foot and Mouth Disease - but swine fever), Michael has the unenviable task of supervising the slaughter, clean up and restocking, but also the more distressing job of putting down some of the estate's finest hunters.

His sentiments have to be echoed by all those anglers, wildfowlers, game shooters, ramblers and
others who follow country sports pursuits. No one wants a closed countryside but no one wants a major disease outbreak again either.

The year ahead for Northern Ireland farmers has to be a better one. Farm Minister Brid Rodgers' Agri-Food Vision Steering Group has put a focus on many things. It has challenged the province's farmers and food processors to become more competitive and responsive to changing market conditions. Arthur Anderson, a member of the Steering Group has told Mrs Rodgers the future of the agri-food industry depends on more than just improving competitiveness and profitability. He, and no doubt the Vision Group, believes future prosperity depends on successfully addressing a broad range of other issues including environmental sustainability.

We must accept the industry needs to work together to become more efficient, more innovative and more customer-focused if it is to respond to the growing pressures of globalisation and new business attitudes. "However, we must also recognise the key role of agriculture in creating and maintaining our landscape, in supporting biodiversity
  and in under pinning rural "communities. "Consequently, we need to measure its contribution not just to economic development, but also to environmental management and to social inclusion."

The Vision Group has identified ten key Themes for Action which should help pave the way for future success in the agri-food industry. They include:

* focusing on the evolving demands of the market
* strengthening the food chain;
* improving farm sectoral performance;
* protecting and enhancing animal health status;
* strengthening the rural economy;
* safeguarding our land-based heritage and rural environment;
* developing people;
* targeting research and development and technology transfer
* exploiting IT opportunities;
* furthering the interests of Northern Ireland.

A hefty shopping basket but a necessary one.

Farm Minister Rodgers quickly followed up on this in November. Launching a new £80m Rural Development Programme she gave the industry a much needed boost. An extremely welcome one at the end of an extremely trying year.

The new programme will run until 2006. It will focus on disadvantage and equality of opportunity and
will pay particular attention to encouraging input and uptake by rural women, young people, farm families and the long term unemployed. "It will provide opportunity and support for people living in rural areas of Northern Ireland to develop their own ideas and improve living standards," she said

One of the key elements within the programme will be to strengthen the capacity of rural communities.
With RDP funding the Rural Community Network and the Rural Development Council will provide the resources to support, advise and assist people living in country communities who wish to acquire the knowledge and experience needed to help develop their areas Initiatives like the RDP show there is some light at the end of the tunnel.

For the sake of Northern Ireland agriculture and those who labour in it that light must get brighter. The industry has debts running in excess of half a billion pounds. No one has accused the industry of not
paying those debts. Farmers may be cash poor but they are in many cases asset rich. Provided the value of farm land maintains its present high values - in some cases over £6,000 an acre - they will always have something to sell or use as security.

In the meantime every one wants to get a fair break and get back on a sound footing again. Who knows, 2002 may see the foundations laid for future success in farming.