Gary McHenry: 'Farming here could collapse. We cannot let that happen'
Chris McCullough talks to the dairy farmer from Lurgan about the crisis in the industry and his support for the young farmers who have protested in support of their livelihoods.
Q. You are 55 years old and have been farming all your life. Can you tell me a bit about your farm and how long you and your family have been milking cows for?
A. I manage the family farm in Annaghdroghal, near Lurgan, on the southern shores of Lough Neagh. I have been farming since 1978 and I have a dairy herd of 250 cows and about 250 young stock.
Q. Do you have any family who are hoping to follow you into dairy farming and, if so, what is your advice to them?
A. My son Michael has been farming for these past 10 years and hopes to continue in the family tradition and build a successful farming career. I always encourage him to do what he loves, but he already appreciates the challenges ahead.
Q. It has been a really tough year for dairy farmers in Northern Ireland and beyond. EU Farm Commissioner Phil Hogan refuses to call it a crisis. Do you think there is a crisis in the dairy industry and other sectors?
A. I think that there is a real crisis in the dairy industry in Northern Ireland. Let me explain. Last year we were receiving 34 pence per litre for our milk. Currently, we are getting 17 pence per litre. That is a serious drop of 50%. EU Farm Commissioner Phil Hogan may refuse to call it a crisis, but what else can we call it, then? Other sectors of the agricultural industry are in difficulty, too. Farmers in Northern Ireland are all under serious pressure, no matter what section of the industry they are involved in.
Q. Can you outline the key factors you think have contributed to the downfall of the dairy sector and farming overall during the past eight months?
A. With the abolition of milk quotas and global influences, the present crisis has been in the making for some time. The decision to place sanctions on Russia led to that country's retaliation and a ban on imports from Europe. They banned cheese products, for example, and this was bad for commodity markets. Why should farmers carry the can for this geo-political decision?
We in Northern Ireland export 85% of the milk we produce; therefore we are very exposed to market forces. We are also affected by fluctuations in the euro/sterling rates. A drop in demand from China hasn't helped the situation either. Chinese demand drove the whole milk powder prices to over 5,000 dollars a tonne last year. Now it has dropped significantly, to 40% of that.
Q. Supermarkets are getting blamed for not sharing the profits and passing on a good return to farmers. Do you think the milk processors are holding a better hand they could play in all of this to help the ailing industry?
A. The milk processors are cooperatives. They are farmer owned. In my opinion, their profit margins are tight and at a cost that cannot be sustained. However, the retailers, the big supermarkets, that's a different story. They are dominating the supply chain and, while some have recently bowed to pressure from protesters, they continue to make significant profits at the expense of others in the supply chain. Farmers receive a raw deal when it comes to their allocation of profits in the supply chain.
Q. You are a member of the Ulster Farmers' Union and Fair Price Farming NI. The latter was set up by a group of young farmers fed up with the lack of action from farming groups and politicians. Why do you support the lobby group?
A. Indeed, I am a member of the UFU and Fair Price Farming NI. I admire and support the energetic approach of the young farmers who established Fair Price Farming NI in the first place. They are young farmers who felt frustrated and wanted to make a difference, to secure their livelihoods and the future of farming families here in Northern Ireland. They have a clear message and they make sure that their message is heard. They have given us all a focus and a belief that we can make a difference together and influence the European Farm Commissioner Phil Hogan. Fair Price Farming NI is also keen to highlight the unfair advantage of the retailers and the unfair distribution of profits along the supply chain.
Q. Fair Price NI has yielded some excellent results with its protest action in supermarkets and at Stormont. Why do you think people are listening to the group and helping it achieve its goal?
A. Fair Price Farming NI represents the future of farming in Northern Ireland. They are the young farmers, the lifeblood of the industry. They are articulate, they are energetic, and they are proactive. They are willing to make sacrifices, giving up their time to ensure their voice is heard. People are listening to them, as they identify with their message and how it is presented. They are the pulse of dairy farming in Northern Ireland; they are the pulse of all farming sectors here, and a pulse that must be kept alive.
Q. There are now many farming groups all trying to achieve the same result in Northern Ireland, but egos of some people 'wearing suits', as they were called at the Stormont protest, are getting in the way of any real co-operation or unity among farmers. Do you think all farming groups will ever stand together?
A. There is unity within the diversity of farming groups. It is good to have different voices with different emphases within the farming industry.
Q. Fair Price NI delivered a letter to EU Farm Commissioner Phil Hogan via the Commission office in Belfast. Were you happy with how that particular event went?
A. We handed in a letter for the attention of Farm Commissioner Phil Hogan to the European Commission on the Dublin Road, Belfast. What a great atmosphere and what a delight to see the turnout of farmers there to support this! We were welcomed by the Head of Commission, Colette Fitzgerald. She listened to our concerns and reassured us that she would do all she could to support us. We read out the letter to the crowd and what a reception we got from those attending! We were more than happy with how that particular event went. The Head of Commission confirmed that the Commissioner had received the letter shortly afterwards.
Q. Some farmers laugh at the protests and take the attitude that those who attend are wasting their time. How would you encourage your fellow farmers to take their own action to save their businesses?
A. I would say to those farmers who feel that the protests are a waste of time, that it is up to all of us to play our part. It is our future. We have made a difference already. Retailers now recognise that there is an issue and are beginning to address this. The protests have been successful in forcing an extraordinary meeting of the council of EU Farm Ministers in Brussels last Monday. We have lobbied our politicians here in Britain, and in Brussels. They are listening. We will continue to lobby and fight for intervention. I would invite those farmers who sit back and do nothing to come and join us.
Q. Have you ever been through a similar or worse crisis in all your years in farming?
A. No, I have not. While farming always presents challenges and difficulties, I have never experienced anything as deep and prolonged. We have experienced volatility and, indeed, we expect volatility, but this is an extreme situation. It is having a critical impact on the agricultural industry. SMEs are particularly exposed, because of their dependence on the agricultural industry. Farming families, in particular young farmers, are reluctant to continue in the agriculture business. We are extremely exposed to market forces and to the euro/sterling currency fluctuations. We are in a real crisis. Farmers need help, and they need it now.
Q. There has been meeting after meeting after meeting in Northern Ireland between politicians, farmers, lobby groups and higher authorities. Have these meetings yielded any benefits to the industry or have they been a waste of time?
A. Yes Chris, these meetings are crucial. They have confirmed a sense of solidarity among farmers and they reinforced the need to build a common understanding of the depth of the crisis across all relevant parties. These meetings gave us a strong focus. We must keep a high profile and keep up the pressure for intervention mechanisms to be revisited.
Q. You took time out from your own hectic farming schedule to travel to Brussels with your wife to join the massive protest on September 7. What factors encouraged you to go there in the first place?
A. I went to Brussels to support fellow farmers from here, from Britain and elsewhere in Europe. I wanted to play an active part in that protest on the Monday and make a strong visible presence. I wanted to take a message to the Farm Commissioner in the heart of Europe, where decisions about our future are made.
Q. How did the protest go and how was the mood of other farmers there in Brussels?
A. Around 6,000 farmers with 2,000 tractors took to the streets of Brussels, blocking the main arterial routes. Riot police lined the routes. Farmers across Europe converged on the day to make a key demand. They stated their case loud and clear and that case was to reduce volatility. I spoke with farmers from Belgium, from Lithuania, from Germany and from France and in all cases we shared the same problems, that of low farm prices and the fact farmers across Europe are going out of business.
Q. Do you agree with what Commissioner Hogan announced in Brussels and what do you personally think should be done to save firstly the dairy industry and farming in general?
A. It was disappointing that the intervention price wasn't raised. That's what we had been lobbying for, to reduce extreme volatility. During the Melamine crisis in 2009, intervention was used with good effect. Indeed, when the intervened product was sold back on to a rising market, 800 million euros of profit was made that went straight to Commission coffers! I acknowledge that some of the Commissioner's proposals are positive; for example, extending and enhancing private storage aid, a private storage scheme for pig meat and establishing a new high level group to look at futures markets for agricultural products. We need futures markets for commodities and we also need complementary national aid.
However, it's hard to see the UK Agriculture Minister supporting co-funding. Perhaps our Minister of Agriculture, Michelle O'Neill, who has been extremely supportive, will have some influence? We appreciate that the Commission is working with the European Investment Bank on repayment schemes linked to commodity price developments. Personally, I welcome this and believe that this is a significant development from the Commission. Farming, in general, needs such a catalyst for recovery.
Farming in Northern Ireland could potentially collapse, and with it our rural wellbeing. We cannot allow this to happen. So we will keep on lobbying and making our message clear.