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Northern Ireland farm incomes to fall dramatically amid no-deal Brexit warnings

By Andrew Madden

Farm incomes across Northern Ireland are expected to fall by almost a quarter this financial year, according to the latest government estimates.

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The news comes as industry figures warn a no-deal Brexit could have a "catastrophic" impact on agriculture in Northern Ireland.

Estimates from the Department from Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) predict incomes across all farms will drop from an average of £33,870 in the 2017/2018 financial year to £26,030 in 2018/2019 - or 23% per farm.

Provisional figures also show that farm incomes fell from £467m in 2017 to £360m in 2018 - a decrease of 23%.

Rising labour and animal feed costs have been cited as factors driving the downturn.

According to the Ulster Farmers' Union (UFU), agri-food exports to the EU could face tariffs of 27% on chicken, 46% on lamb and 65% on beef in the event of a no-deal Brexit.

The union has also said the government could face pressure to adopt a "cheap food policy", undercutting domestic food production and leaving farms struggling to remain in business.

Due to the EU's Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), much of the income from farming in Northern Ireland comes from EU subsidies which will stop when the UK exits the European Union.

The UFU's president, Ivor Ferguson, said that with weeks to go until Brexit, the figures underline the continuing dependence of direct support for agriculture.

"Despite the lack of firm decisions on future support arrangements these figures must be a wake up call that these cannot be indefinitely delayed," he added.

"Even with all the changes we have seen in rural areas their financial fortunes still ebb and flow with the success or otherwise of agriculture."

Mr Ferguson said the industry is being squeezed by static returns and rising costs, with an uncertain future.

"Look behind these and of the £360 million total income, £286 million was made up of direct support from Brussels through the CAP.  That is why decisions on how this will be replaced after Brexit cannot be allowed to drift even further,” warned Mr Ferguson.

Ulster Unionist leader Robin Swann said it was "ridiculous" farmers in Northern Ireland still don't know how they will be supported post-Brexit.

"As a result of the continuing Stormont impasse, Northern Ireland is the only region with a blank page in terms of what future agri support may look like," he said.

"That, combined with the fact that Northern Ireland farmers have the most to lose from a no deal Brexit, means that the industry here is in an incredibly precarious situation.

"The revelation that real time farm incomes fell by 24% in 2018 – a year when beef and milk prices were strong and weather conditions were very favourable – shows that the industry has the potential to be decimated if it were suddenly forced to compete against cheap, lower quality food imported from other less reputable countries.

"Decisions taken over the next two months will have a huge impact on the future of entire generations of farming families. We are rapidly running out of time and all sides urgently need to see the impact of what a bungled Brexit outcome would be."

In the Commons earlier this week, a majority of MPs voted in favour of a non-binding amendment that rejected a no-deal Brexit.

An amendment that called for the Irish backstop to be replaced with "alternative arrangements to avoid a hard border" was also passed.

Now, Prime Minister Theresa May has to go back to the EU to convince them to agree to the changes to her deal that MPs have backed.

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