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I am glad to have the opportunity to report. a little over six months after its launch, on our progress to date in implementing Farming Connect.
Farming Connect was launched in the autumn of 2001. It is a key commitment of the partnership Government – not least because of the enthusiasm for the scheme of Mick Bates. It is also an innovative service, aimed at helping farming families re-think their approach to their farm businesses, making them fit for the future.
The scheme plays a central role in enabling the Welsh Assembly Government to deliver on the Farming for the Future strategy. Its purpose is to ensure that farmers adapt to modern requirements through greater efficiency and/or diversification allied to economic, environmental and social sustainability. It provides a comprehensive range of specialist advice and practical support, tailored specifically for the farming community in Wales.
On registering for the scheme farmers are provided with the on-farm services of a business consultant free of charge in order to put together a farm business development plan. Proposals for farm improvement or diversification are put together and a range of capital grants is available for viable proposals.
While the foot and mouth outbreak delayed the launch of Farming Connect last year, I considered it essential to get the scheme up and running as soon as it was possible to do so.
Farming Connect has been received very positively by many sectors of the farming community; including the farming unions, which have played a key role in getting Farming Connect up and running. There have been over 4,000 enquiries through the service centre, almost all of them requesting a farm business development plan – the core element of the scheme.
This has inevitably led to some teething troubles because these numbers are well in excess of the total numbers expected for the first year of the scheme. I regret the fact that there have been waiting lists for consultant visits and the completion of business plans. I want to see waiting times reduced, but not at the risk of compromising the quality-assured nature of the scheme.
That said, over 300 farms now have agreed business plans, and we are working hard on improvements. My officials and those in the WDA are looking at existing processes to find ways in which we can streamline the service and speed up turn-round times - for example, by offering a short sharp diagnostic assessment (rather than a full business plan) for those viable farming businesses which already have an improvement in mind and are anxious to proceed.
The key grants available on completion of a farm business development plan are Farm Improvement Grant, which will help farmers to adopt best practice, to make animal welfare, hygiene and product quality improvements and to enhance, protect and maintain the environment of the farm; Farm Enterprise Grant, which will help to widen the employment base on and off farms for farmers and for farming family members; and grants for farm tourism, timber processing and processing and marketing
To date £435,141 grant has been committed – underpinning total expenditure of £1,123,985. These are figures which will increase substantially in coming months are we approve more and more applications.
It is important to emphasise, however, that Farming Connect is not just about grants; it is about helping Welsh farmers to manage what is a period of massive change in the farming industry, and helping them to improve efficiency and explore new enterprises
Account must be taken of new techniques and technology; new markets must be explored; good ideas must be pioneered and adopted, so development centres have been set up to improve knowledge transfer and a network of 30 demonstration farms is being established to assist in this process and to encourage adoption of best practice
A number of successful events have already been held at the centres and farms and many more are planned throughout the summer.
The right skills are of course essential. Specially tailored training programmes (launched last month by ELWa) will help farmers sharpen up their business management and IT skills. They will also help farmers develop entrepreneurial skills and become more aware of changing markets and what the consumer wants.
I have always said that Farming Connect must develop and expand. Additional services coming on board will include an environmental and pollution advisory service which will demonstrate the practical and economic advantages of sustainable farming practices; and subsidised advice on planning applications for non-agricultural farm diversification.
This is an innovative initiative. It encapsulates the best in joined-up Government involving a wide range of public sector partners, all with one aim – to equip the Welsh farming industry to survive - and flourish. We are listening to the farming community, to the partners, to the clearing banks and to the farming unions. We will listen to anyone with a point to make about Farming Connect or with a good idea. Regular feedback is a very important part of the scheme and making the necessary improvements quickly will be essential if it is to develop as we intend to become a key element of the drive to create a sustainable Welsh farming industry for the future.