Northern Ireland 'too much to lose' by backing Brexit, says new UFU president Barclay Bell
Northern Ireland has "too much to lose" to consider backing a Brexit, the newly appointed head of the Ulster Farmers' Union (UFU) has claimed.
Barclay Bell (59) is an eighth-generation Co Down farmer who has been with the organisation for around 35 years.
Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph about the possibility of leaving the EU, he said there was an absence of compelling absence supporting an exit.
"We are open to the debate, and we would wait until after the local elections so that we don't get Brexit mixed up with that," Mr Bell added. "We intend to have an open debate with the In and Out campaigns. In absence of any compelling argument to leave, we would have to be saying to stay in."
The UFU chief claimed there were "huge concerns" over what would happen to the hundreds of millions of pounds farmers receive from the EU each year in the event of a Brexit.
"As it stands, we have to say, in the absence of real compelling arguments, there is too much to lose," he said.
Mr Bell also discussed the current crisis in farming. He said it had been exacerbated by a range of factors including the Russia import ban, a slowdown in China and the overall price being paid for goods, including milk.
While Mr Bell's farm has some sheep and cattle, it is mainly arable. He also diversified into flowers 10 years ago, with his business selling top-end roses to retailers including Marks and Spencer.
Mr Bell became deputy president of the UFU four years ago, and previously held several roles with the organisation. He replaced Ian Marshall as chief of the farmers' body.
"We are down at Rathfriland, and are eight generations on this farm, dating back to the early 1700s," he said of his family.
"We are largely an arable farm, and we do have sheep and a few cattle. We diversified into flowers 10 years ago. With a lot of farmers, the main streams weren't profitable."
While the flower business has taken off, the farm's main income comes through traditional streams.
It is also very much a family affair, with Mr Bell's wife, Lesley, and two sons, Elliott (29) - who also works for the UFU - and Jonathan (27) heavily involved with the 200-acre farm. Daughter Gina (24), meanwhile, works as an accountant.
"Both boys are very passionate about farming," Mr Bell said. "Both still are involved and any spare time they have, they are on the farm. It's great they have the interest. In the role I'm in, it's full-time, so you do need back-up."
Speaking about what he called the continuing crisis in farming, he predicted there would be "casualties" along the way. "I think it has been well documented, the crisis that farming is in," Mr Bell added. "It's been highlighted now for a year or 18 months. We will come out of it, but I'm worried there will be some casualties."
Setting out his stall, he also claimed that tough times meant new thinking was needed.
And he urged farmers and processors to be more open to co-operation.
With the looming Assembly election, Mr Bell said the new minister must "hit the ground running" to improve the sector.