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Growing debt crisis sees stressed farmers living hand to mouth existence in Northern Ireland

By Rachel Martin

Published 10/10/2016

North Antrim MLA Robin Swann
North Antrim MLA Robin Swann

Farmers are coming under increasing financial strain amid revelations the average farm's debt has spiralled to nearly £40,000.

In response to an Assembly question, it was revealed the average farm borrowed £34,500 in 2010, a figure which rose by more than £4,000 to £38,600 in 2014.

Over the last year, Farm Business Income - which measures a family's total income from the farm - fell on average from £30,000 to £25,000, while input costs such as animal feed have continued to increase.

The latest figures are the latest available and are based on farm accounts collected as part of the Northern Ireland Farm Business Survey. Farmers had been warned to put off unnecessary purchases during harder times and to pay off hard borrowing during better times - but for many farmers, continuing low prices for their produce has made this hard to do.

North Antrim MLA Robin Swann has urged Agriculture Minister Michelle McIlveen to take action.

His family runs a dairy farm in Larne and he is also a member of the Stormont Committee on Agriculture and a past president of the Young Farmers' Clubs of Ulster.

Mr Swann said: "I think farmers need to talk about it more. It's not on the agenda any more and it's the elephant in the room. They do need help and support from the banks.

"Subsidies have been coming in earlier, but this is being used by farmers to pay interest and repay bank loans.

"When cash-flow starts to get hit it's all the farmer can think about - how he's going to pay the next bill and that starts to lead into depression."

Several milk processors in the UK have discussed bringing in fixed price contracts to ease fears around price volatility, with Lakeland Dairies the first to do so in Northern Ireland.

Earlier this year it was revealed that Ulster Bank was planning to sell off dozens of "non-performing" Northern Ireland business loans to vulture funds as part of a £2bn clear-out of debt right across Ireland - including loans involving farmers and other agri-businesses.

Mr Swann said: "In the past farmers would have been able to rely on a local bank manager who would have been sympathetic - now we are looking at faceless corporate banking.

"These are truly shocking statistics - not just the levels of borrowing, but also the increase of more than £4,000 in that borrowing figure over the past years.

"There is a real need for the minister and her department to act urgently and put in place financial measures which ease the cash strain on our farmers.

"If a realistic and workable policy is not put in place and implemented as soon as possible, there is the real danger we could see more people leave the much-needed farming sector because it's too costly to run farms."

The story is similar in the Republic, where only 37% of the country's farms were economically viable last year.

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