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Farmers could capitalise on food deficit

By Rachel Martin

Following a tough few years things are finally picking up for Northern Ireland farmers, but with Brexit negotiations just beginning and so many unknowns those in the sector are questioning how long it will last.

Speaking at an agri-food briefing in Belfast city centre yesterday, Ulster Bank agriculture manager Cormac McKervey warned Northern Ireland's beef and sheep sectors could not survive without subsidies, but the bank's economist Richard Ramsey is much more optimistic.

Mr Ramsey suggested the UK's food deficit could be a lifeline for farmers post-Brexit and said the region's farmers are "well-positioned" to make the most of the opportunity. However, he warned this would be likely be at the expense of farmers in the Republic.

Mr Ramsey said: "2016 was the year agri-food bounced back from its annus horribilis. The question is, will 2017 be an annus mirabilis?

"In the short term the exchange rate is very positive. Euro-sterling is acting as a tailwind for the agri sector, but we do have obstacles such as Brexit. One of the biggest positives is the fact that the UK has a food deficit. When we leave the EU the question is how Northern Ireland farmers can reduce that deficit and how they can capitalise on that.

"But that all depends on what trade deals will be done and is provided there's no deal with Brazil or the US for cheap meat."

Ulster Bank head of Northern Ireland Richard Donnan said that although there is much uncertainty in relation to Brexit the agri-food industry has some "fundamental strengths".

Mr Donnan said that the exchange rate is currently in local firms' favour, but longer term Northern Ireland's place in the UK market, the provenance of its produce, quality of its supply chain and the growing demand for food would help secure its future.

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