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Urgent summit is called in a bid to fend off calamity

By Noel McAdam

Published 04/08/2015

Agriculture Minister Michelle O'Neill
Agriculture Minister Michelle O'Neill

Northern Ireland's five big banks and milk producers have agreed to a ground-breaking summit in an attempt to stave off disaster for the dairy industry, the Belfast Telegraph can reveal.

The Ulster Farmers Union (UFU), which is organising the meeting for later this month, described it as "history-making".

It is hoped that news of the one-day conference will lower the temperature among angry farmers who have blockaded supermarkets in recent days.

The UFU says the average dairy farm here is losing £900 a week, with the family-run farms earning less for their milk than it costs to produce it.

UFU official Chris Osborne said: "This is the first time a meeting like this has ever happened and we regard it as very significant. The protests are not organised by the UFU, they are being organised locally."

The focus will be on short to medium-term solutions for the crisis-hit dairy farmers - although the UFU stresses it has no "prescription" for the industry.

"We are in no sense telling farmers what they should do, it will be up to those at the meeting to discuss what is practicable. This is the industry speaking to the industry," Mr Osborne added.

Around 500 dairy farmers are expected to attend the summit on August 27, which will also try to increase the pressure for the European Commission to help the crisis-hit dairy sector.

"But the fact is, nothing is going to happen during the month of August. Brussels, where the problem can be addressed, is closed down for the whole month," Mr Osborne said.

Agriculture Minister Michelle O'Neill is being invited to open the conference at Greenmount Agricultural College, near Antrim.

Mr Osborne said: "There is a big difference between the situation now and the last crisis in the dairy industry in 2009. Then it was producers versus processors, but now everyone is in the same position.

"And the good thing about this meeting is that it will involve all components of the supply chain here.

"We are all singing from the same hymn sheet because this could impact as much on processors as producers."

Robert McCullough, head of agribusiness at Danske Bank in Northern Ireland, is to address the gathering along with Owen Brennan, who has been president of the Northern Ireland Grain Association three times.

The region has 2,684 dairy farms with a total of 285,400 dairy cows, and just a week ago 50 farmers met MLAs and MEP Jim Nicholson in Donaghcloney, which led to an emergency meeting of the Assembly's agriculture committee last Thursday attended by the Sinn Fein Agriculture Minister.

Last week angry farmers who are facing bankruptcy staged a blockade at two stores in Co Londonderry and cleared milk from shelves at an Asda store in Co Tyrone.

The Farmers For Action group said milk was being sold cheaper than bottled water.

But the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium blamed the fall in milk prices on "global economic trends".

At the end of 2013, the Ulster Farmers Union forecast a fall in milk prices which accelerated in 2014 when the Russian food import ban was announced. Since then, as the ban has gone on, the strength of sterling has worked against local milk prices and production volumes have continued to rise. The UFU warns that this could be the worst dairy crisis in living memory, with prices showing no sign of stabilising.

Belfast Telegraph

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