Farmers hold Stormont protest with message: save our industry
"No farmers, no food" - that was the simple message from the hundreds who had gathered at Stormont yesterday to protest against below-cost prices for their produce.
The Agriculture Minister and representatives from across the agri-food industry spoke to the crowd from the top of a trailer positioned directly in front of Parliament Buildings.
Ulster Farmers' Union (UFU) President Ian Marshall (below) told the crowd: "Agriculture and agri-food is critically important to the Northern Ireland economy, most families directly and indirectly are affected by agriculture. It's about jobs, it's about employment, it's about processing and manufacturing, it's about the future.
"This crisis is about global supply and global demand, it's about exchange rates, it's about recession, it's about China, it's about a Russian embargo and it's about food deflation. All of which we have little or no control over but which the [European] Commission can influence.
"We want the Commission to recognise, firstly, that there is a crisis; to acknowledge that these are not normal circumstances and to react accordingly, take responsibility and assist in whatever way it can.
Yesterday's protest was the latest stage in the farmers' campaign against what they regard to be unfair pricing. On Monday 22 representatives, including young farmers, will bring their case directly to the European Commission in Brussels.
Mr Marshall told the crowd: "Across many member states farmers, families and businesses are running aground, they're running out of cash and running out of patience; the industry is in crisis.
"To the Commission, a simple message: no farmers, no food. To the citizens of Europe, a simple message: no farmers, no food. To people of Northern Ireland, a simple message: no farmers, no future because as these agri-food businesses today demonstrate whether you're farming, processing or manufacturing, if you haven't the raw material you've nothing to process, nothing to add value to or to sell and you won't need the factories or the jobs or the auxiliary businesses.
"Every job in agriculture generates two jobs in the wider rural economy so it matters to us all."
William Irwin, chair of the Executive's agriculture committee, told the crowd it was the worst crisis he had seen in his 40 years as a farmer before highlighting the need for fairness in the industry.
Agriculture Minister Michelle O'Neill said she had spoken to many farmers who were at "biting point". She added: "Farmers are not asking for handouts, farmers are asking for help.
"If we are going to look to the future we need to have fairness in the supply chain. We need action and we need action at a European level and we need it now if we're going to have a sustainable industry. Agriculture is the backbone of our local economy and it's of vital and significant importance in going forward."
Mrs O'Neill also told the crowd about a recent meeting she and the three Northern Ireland MEPs had with the European Agriculture Commissioner Philip Hogan.
She said: "We left him with a very clear message that we need action. He has turned his face, to date, in recognising that there is a crisis but he is slowly but surely coming to the point that there is indeed a crisis. What we need to see on Monday as we lead into that meeting is very strong actions, we need a review of intervention prices.
"I will not be quiet. I believe the future for agriculture is very bright but if we don't have action it will be very bleak."