Farming industry on its knees and must be rescued now, warns union
Northern Ireland is on the brink of the biggest farming crisis ever, it can be revealed.
Ulster Farmers Union (UFU) president Ian Marshall warns that the industry is on its knees and has called for mechanisms to be put in place to avoid disaster.
He said that problems ran much deeper than the beleaguered dairy sector, whose members have been staging public demonstrations over low milk prices, which may put them out of business.
The Belfast Telegraph can also reveal that beef, lamb and arable farmers are now gearing up to take their protest on to the streets.
"We are facing the worst agriculture crisis in living memory because most of our sectors are unsustainable at current market prices," Mr Marshall claimed.
"Farmers are running out of cash because you can't keep on in a system where you produce a product and sell it below cost of production without ultimately running out of funds.
"The dairy industry has highlighted these concerns and brought them to the fore last week by virtue of the public protests.
"But dairy is just one sector and there are a lot of sectors affected at the moment by this."
He added: "Some farmers are on the breadline. If nothing is done to help there is no reason to think that other farmers won't bring their protest to the streets. This industry is on its knees and we need to get through this crisis."
Mr Marshall said there were several reasons why local agriculture was under so much pressure.
"As an agri-food region, 85% of what we produce is exported out of Northern Ireland," he said.
"That makes us dependent on export markets across the board, and the big thing for our industry now is market volatility.
"Exchange rates are also having a devastating impact.
"In the dairy sector alone it will be taking 3-4p a litre off the product, which is huge.
"In our red meat sector, or grains, the reality is that the exchange rate leaves us uncompetitive because it leaves products traded in sterling too expensive.
"We're unique in Northern Ireland in that we're an island off an island off a continent, yet we share a land border with another member state trading in euro, which creates another set of problems."
Farmers also face price pressure due to other issues, including less demand from a struggling Chinese economy and a Russian ban on EU food imports in retaliation for EU sanctions on Russia due to the Ukraine conflict.
Mr Marshall said the price the arable sector received for grain was down 40% in the last two seasons, while the basics for growing the crop - the seed, fertiliser, sprays, labour and the fuel - have all gone up.
He said there had been problems in the red meat industry, especially lamb, in recent months.
"We've had difficulties with it in the export market as we have a product which is quite expensive because it's traded in sterling and we've had issues with 'country of origin' labelling," he explained.
"On the beef side, prices are down by 15% from January to May and that has been huge for us.
"The background to all this is that at the same time the cost of production has gone up, and that's a massive problem."
The UFU president said the introduction of mega pig farms was not detrimental to the industry.
However, he said big wholesalers, such as Ballymena-based Moy Park, selling discounted products was problematic.
"That ultimately has an effect because people have come to expect cheap food, and cheap food isn't helpful to anyone," he said.
"We've always had major concerns where heavily discounted products are sold, such as loss leaders in supermarkets - milk, bread and red meat."
By contrast, Mr Marshall said there was no issue with high-end niche market retailers like Hannan Meats in Moira.
Ulster Unionist MEP Jim Nicholson said the farming crisis was getting worse on a daily basis.
"I have never seen so many sectors in trouble at the same time; they are all in difficulty," he said.