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Trade with Europe and subsidies pull farmers towards the Remain camp

By Yvette Shapiro and Rachel Martin

Published 08/06/2016

Crosby Cleland shows the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge around his farm
Crosby Cleland shows the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge around his farm
Dessie Patterson
Martin Hamilton
Martyn Blair

With just over a fortnight until the June 23 Referendum vote, many farmers have still to make up their minds whether to remain in or leave the EU.

Agricultural subsidies provide 87% of farm income in some cases, with those producers utterly dependent on the EU.

Dessie Patterson farms in the Trassey Valley near Newcastle in Co Down. He breeds sheep on a Mournes hill farm and grows potatoes and cereal crops on a lowland holding.

"The heart says leave but the head says remain," Mr Patterson said.

"Hill farmers could not survive without EU subsidies, they'd be completely decimated if we were not to remain within Europe.

"We would see a lot of the hill areas abandoned because it would not be economical to survive there."

Mr Patterson, a former UUP councillor, said he doubted that leaving the EU would reduce the heavy burden of bureaucracy and red tape.

"There are too many regulations, of course, and farmers are frustrated with that," he said.

"But even if we left, the regulations would still be there. For example, the number of hoops you have to jump through to get potatoes on the shelves of the major supermarkets is ridiculous.

"Those rules are imposed by the retailers themselves, so that won't change."

Not every producer benefits from subsidies. Martyn Blair keeps around 100,000 hens near Finvoy in Co Antrim and runs a small store beef enterprise with between 30 and 50 cattle.

"Unlike the majority of other sectors, poultry is entirely without this support payment from the EU," he said.

"We operate our businesses purely based on market forces.

"I often looked with envy upon those farms with a considerable Single Farm Payment, but I now, like so many of my fellow producers, believe we are better off without it.

"In my opinion, it would encourage inefficiencies which we have fought hard to eradicate and subsequent dependency upon something which we should not need to make our businesses viable.

"I would have classified myself as an early 'Remain' voter but as the time approaches for the ballot box, I find myself becoming more uncertain and pulled towards the middle."

Mr Blair added that if Britain leaves the EU, he fears that large-scale egg producers may lose access to European markets.

He was also concerned that in the event of a Brexit, the UK public would not support the government diverting large amounts of money to farmers in the form of subsidies.

Crosby Cleland, a sheep farming and agriculture fencing specialist, has around 750 breeding ewes on his farm near Saintfield, Co Down. He's the beef and lamb chairman of the Ulster Farmers' Union, but spoke in a personal capacity.

The 65-year-old is, on balance, in favour of staying in the EU.

"I just feel that we are so blind as to what's going to happen.

"I know how bad the system is for farmers at the minute, but I just don't want it to get any worse. Let's stay in and hope it gets better," he said.

"My biggest concern has been how the pound has fallen in value in the last year. I'm losing between £8 to £10 for every sheep because of it.

"The pound is dropping because of the polls, and that frightens me more than anything. It's just not going in our favour.

"Last year my fencing business brought in more money than the sheep, which lost money last year."

Large-scale arable farmer and processor Martin Hamilton runs the well-known Mash Direct company.

He grows vegetables on 1,400 acres near Comber, Co Down, and exports to the Republic, Europe and the Middle East.

He's strongly in favour of staying in the EU.

"Leave campaigners say we have the rest of the world to go and trade, but those markets are harder to go to and deal with," Mr Hamilton said.

"Northern Ireland is trying to expand and our nearest customers are in Europe.

"We have been trying to get products into America for years but it's much harder than packing a lorry and shipping it out."

Mr Hamilton is also dismissive of claims by Leave campaigners like Secretary of State Theresa Villiers that border controls will not be restored if there's a Brexit.

"I remember the days when our lorries were stuck for days in Newry and Dundalk.

"Politicians don't care what happens with Northern Ireland, all they care about is themselves. They want to go into leadership in Whitehall.

"If people think for one second that the government will do any more favours for farmers than it has to, they are mistaken."

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