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Shops sell Comber spuds for £1 but farmer gets just 14p

By Noel McAdam

Published 08/01/2016

Potato farmer Robin McKee with his huge haul of potatoes on his farm in Comber
Potato farmer Robin McKee with his huge haul of potatoes on his farm in Comber
Potato farmer Robin McKee with his huge haul of potatoes on his farm in Comber

An award-winning Northern Ireland farmer has revealed he is receiving just 14p per kilo for his potatoes - which sell in the supermarkets for £1.

This means retailers are able to sell one of the province's best known local products at a price an incredible seven times higher than what the grower receives.

And Robin McKee fears farmgate prices for his world-famous spuds could fall even further.

His plight is the latest example of the ongoing poor prices for produce threatening to push many farmers in the province to the brink of bankruptcy.

The Co Down man was a key figure behind the Comber spud joining the ranks of world-famous foods like Stilton cheese and Proscuitto ham.

Four years ago a locally organised campaign was aimed at bringing the humble potato to the same status as its renowned Channel Island counterpart, Jersey Royals, along with Co Armagh Bramley apples.

It resulted in protected geographical indication (PGI) status being granted under European law for the potatoes - which are noted for their earthy, nutty flavour and characteristic smooth skins - and put Comber potatoes on a par with Parma ham and Champagne.

That reputation means Mr McKee is confident he can sell the mountain of spuds he currently has in cold storage at his Moat Road farm between Comber and Newtownards.

But he told the Belfast Telegraph: "There is a huge difference between the farmgate price we get and what is then charged to the general public.

"Trade is very slow at the moment and it does not look as if prices will go up."

Mr McKee also said he will not recoup the cost of keeping his vegetables in storage.

"I am using electricity every day and I think trade this year is even worse than last," he said.

"Prices are still a very long way from sustainability and I do not know what the answer is. Certainly, the producer has no input.

"We would be getting 14p a kilo for the potatoes and then see them go on sale in supermarkets, even with a discount, at about £1."

The Comber case comes after the Belfast Telegraph highlighted one Co Armagh farmer who discovered turnips which he was paid 8p for were then being sold at up to 10 times that price, and the same with carrots.

William Irwin, chair of the Assembly's agriculture committee, which is investigating the complex and global reasons for the poor prices being received by farmers, has blamed intense competition between supermarkets.

Representatives from Tesco, Sainsbury's and Lidl have appeared before the committee in recent weeks and faced a grilling from MLAs.

But the poor prices scandal continues to escalate with another senior Ulster Farmers Union official sounding a stern warning about the prices being paid for beef.

UFU beef and lamb policy chairman Crosby Cleland said some cattle farmers were losing more than £200 a head.

He said this time last year beef producers were receiving in the region of 360p per kg, "which is as low as prices can be if livestock coming off a farm here are to break even".

"Unfortunately, at the end of 2015 producers saw no improvement in the market in the run-up to Christmas, which has always been a feature of the beef trade. As a result prices well below the cost of production have left losses that top £200 a head," said Mr Cleland.

He said beef producers have had to live with sustained downward pressure on prices. "This is having a negative impact on the income of many local farms at a time of year when costs are high," he added.

As the Belfast Telegraph reported earlier this week, the UFU is organising a series of area meetings across the province to attempt to tackle the poor prices crisis.

The first meeting is in Enniskillen at the Killyhevlin Hotel on Monday followed by Armagh in the City Hotel on Wednesday 13th; the Tullyglass Hotel, Ballymena, on Monday January 18; the Silverbirch Hotel, Omagh, on Wednesday, January 20; the Roe Park Resort, Limavady, on Monday, January 25, and at the La Mon Hotel, Castlereagh, on Wednesday, January 27.

UFU president Ian Marshall said: "As well as focusing on the supply chain, profitability and market volatility, we intend to take forward ideas to develop new markets, particularly outside the EU."

Agriculture Minister Michelle O'Neill has set up a supply chain forum that includes food producers, farmers, processors and the retail sector.

"It is an attempt to bring all the players together to look at how we can move forward together, how we can create more respect within the supply chain, and how we can communicate that better," she said.

"We are involved in that work alongside challenging the major retailers, as I am always happy to do, on what they are paying for what they buy from local farmers."

The SDLP's Joe Byrne, deputy chair of the committee, said: "While we understand that the food supply chain is complex, we made it very clear to both Asda and Tesco that it should be about much more than the processor/ retailer relationship. It is crucial that the needs of the farmers/producers are recognised and that supermarket policy across the board reflects transparency and fairness for all."

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