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Plight of Northern Ireland farmer paid just 8p for a turnip

By Noel McAdam

Published 28/10/2015

Farmer Joe McCarragher with some of the turnips for which he is being paid a paltry 8p each
Farmer Joe McCarragher with some of the turnips for which he is being paid a paltry 8p each

A farmer has spoken of the plight facing the industry after he was paid a meagre 8p for turnips which were sold on in the supermarkets at an incredible 900% mark-up.

Co Armagh producer Joe McCarragher also discovered that his carrots were being sold in the supermarkets at much higher prices.

The 57-year-old from Richhill warned that intense supermarket competition is forcing his business to the brink of bankruptcy.

"I was paid peanuts for those turnips. I wouldn't even be getting minimum wage as things stand. It is disgusting. The way it is going, bankruptcy for me is not too far away at the moment," he told the Belfast Telegraph.

"The problem is not the consumer looking for cheap prices as far as I can see - the housewife, I believe, is prepared to spend 6p to 8p more for fresh produce.

"It is the supermarkets who take no account of whether farmers have a good year or a bad year. They don't give one hoot about us."

Mr McCarragher earned 8p each for turnips which were then sold on in supermarkets for 80p.

He and his son Colin (30) were also paid 12p a kilo for carrots which then went on sale in the supermarkets at up to 80p.

Mr McCarragher, who diversified into producing a number of vegetables almost eight years ago, said he had decided to go public because the farm gate prices are threatening his survival - along with his son and the two men he employs.

The former potato farmer said he had a succession of poor years due to severe frost and bad weather and said: "I honestly don't know if we are going to survive."

And John Sloan, a fellow producer based at Sprucefield near Lisburn, said: "As far as I can see there is very little being done to help the vegetable farmers because they are now such a small sector. The supermarkets are bringing the prices down on us all the time.

"I am not in as critical a situation as Joe and others, because my business is right through from field to plate, but at the same time it is getting smaller."

The ongoing problem of poor-prices-for-produce - also facing other vegetable growers across the province - was revealed as the Assembly's agriculture committee met senior supermarket bosses face-to-face.

Committee chairman William Irwin warned that growers are at their "wits' end" because of unfair prices for their produce.

The DUP MLA was speaking as representatives of Tesco and Asda gave evidence on the crisis facing the country's largest industry.

Mr Irwin, himself a farmer near Armagh, asked if there was any fairness in a vegetable grower getting 8p a turnip which was then sold at probably 75p or 80p.

"The market is looking for turnips. They are not being exported out of Northern Ireland, this is within Northern Ireland. It is within the remit of a supermarket to help that farmer," he said.

"This producer also grows carrots. He gets 12p a kilo on the farm, but, when I was in both your supermarkets recently, carrots were 60p, 70p, or 80p a kilo. There is a vast difference in what a producer gets and what a supermarket sells at.

"There is a perception that retailers take too big a slice of the profit and leave farmers with absolutely no profit."

But Chris Brown of Asda said: "It is difficult to comment directly on that, because I do not know the turnip market or whether or not that farmer was supplying us. We have tried to get our farmers to improve their efficiency and to find ways to work together to improve efficiency."

Tesco commercial manager Cliff Kells said: "One way that we try to address that in Tesco is by working locally, particularly in the vegetable sector.

"This is a feature of the Northern Ireland market that might be pretty unique compared with the rest of the UK. That is where we can try to help small companies - in fact, some medium-sized and larger companies - to add value to their products so that the end customer gets a better product. The most spectacular example is Mash Direct."

Tesco's head of agriculture, Barney Kay, said the company's chief executive Dave Lewis has apologised for previous practices with suppliers.

"At the start of the year, the plan for the whole year with suppliers is to look at a plan that will include promotions that suppliers want to invest in," he said.

"We recently announced that, as from this month ... for our smaller suppliers from whom we take less than £100,000 a year, we will move to 14-day payment terms. That is a huge step forward."

Representatives from Sainsbury's and Lidl are due to attend the committee's next session next week.

Belfast Telegraph

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