Balmoral Show 2016: Agriculture crisis casts pall, but milk farmers determined to prevail
Will Balmoral help lift the gloom hanging over agriculture?
The 2016 show began against the backdrop of the biggest crisis to impact on local agriculture in more than half-a-century.
Milk, beef, pig and cereal prices are at record lows, a reflection of the current slump in international food commodity markets.
This 'perfect storm' follows a combination of factors, including the continuing Russian ban on EU food imports and the 57% drop in dairy and beef imports recorded by China in 2015.
Northern Ireland's food industry exports 80% of its output annually and is wholly dependent on international markets to secure customer outlets.
But it is the dairy sector, more than any other, that is feeling the pinch at present. Prices paid to local dairy farmers have fallen by 50% in the past 12 months.
Day one of Balmoral was marked by confirmation that the Ulster Farmers Union and Dairy UK (Northern Ireland) have joined forces to establish a working group to address the specific challenges to the milk industry.
According to Ulster Farmers Union policy officer Chris Osborne, the initiative is to let the milk sector identify how best to deal with the increasing unpredictability of world markets.
"We are already discussing this matter with union colleagues in other parts of the UK," he said. "Our aim is to come up with a self-help solution that can deliver a sustainable solution for dairy farmers. And all options are currently on the table."
Osborne recognises the commitment by dairy farmers in the United States to agree an insurance-type model with the Washington administration.
"It's too early to say if a scheme of that nature would work in this part of the world. But our core aim is to put in place a series of measures which will have an impact here in Northern Ireland and, possibly, throughout the rest of the UK."
Dairy UK director Mike Johnston confirmed the working group will draw members from all relevant stakeholder groups.
"These include the farming organisations, milk processors, feed companies, the banks, the department of agriculture, the advisory services and research bodies," he said
"The work will entail a root and branch review of every link in the dairy chain and putting in place a development strategy which will help secure a sustainable future for every group within the industry."