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Our farmers deserve a fair deal

Editor's Viewpoint

Published 28/10/2015

Joe McCarragher
Joe McCarragher

Co Armagh farmer Joe McCarragher, with his magical and telling quote - I got paid peanuts for my turnips - summed up not just the frustration of those who work the land at the low prices they get for their produce, but also the real problems they have in continuing in the business.

For farming is not just some bucolic pastime, but a challenging industry. Farmers need to cover the cost of rearing stock, of growing produce, of buying the expensive farm machinery and equipment needed for modern production and of the same household expenses as every other person in the country.

It is Northern Ireland's biggest industry, but while farmers have become more productive, nearly all sectors have seen a decrease in income. Part of the reason, as with Mr McCarragher, is the low farm gate prices paid for produce, be it vegetables, beef or milk - three sectors which have been especially hard hit in recent times.

Mr McCarragher sold his turnips at 8p each but saw them on supermarket shelves for 80p. Where, he wonders, is the fairness in that?

Is he just a victim of the public demand for cheap food, or are he and other farmers being exploited by the big supermarkets who can put the squeeze on suppliers?

There is no doubt that supermarkets are locked in intense competition for customers and are keen to sell their goods as cheaply as possible to attract greater footfall. That inevitably means that suppliers will be forced to accept low prices for their produce.

If we are honest, we all like the idea of cheap food prices and we seldom think of the consequences for those who produce it. But farmers have to be out in all weathers, tending animals or trying to save crops. They are at the mercy not only of the weather - which can wipe out a year's crops - but of market forces over which they have no control.

Those who live outside the farming community often imagine that they must be living on the pig's back. The reality is somewhat different according to government statistics, with average farm incomes on average last year falling by nearly £8,000 to £21,662. Some 87% of that came from the EU Single Farm Payments.

Fairtrade initiatives have given overseas food producers a fair price for their goods.

Perhaps Agriculture Minister Michelle O'Neill might consider if such an initiative would work closer to home.

Belfast Telegraph

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