Crunch talks as dairy crisis deepens in Northern Ireland
Dairy farmers in Northern Ireland are up against the wall - and may only be able to keep going for a matter of months, it has been claimed.
The Stormont agriculture committee is being recalled early to an emergency meeting dealing with the industry crisis, and the Ulster Farmers Union (UFU) revealed dairy farmers were getting into serious debt.
Milk prices are currently down to as little as 19p per litre. This is significantly lower than the 28p that the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD) calculate is needed to cover the cost of production.
Jonathan Moore, the dairy chairman at the UFU, said the difference between this milk price crisis and previous ones is the length of time this one has lasted.
He said: "This has lasted for 12 months - if it is only a few months it can be weathered out.
"If this keeps going on even more farmers will end up dropping out of the industry."
Mr Moore said milk prices are remaining low due to combination of factors, including an increase in global milk production, particularly in China, the ongoing EU trade war with Russia and the weak euro.
He has urged Agriculture Minister Michelle O'Neill to lobby the EU Agriculture Commissioner Phil Hogan for intervention.
"She really has to be seen to be speaking up for Northern Ireland farmers," he said.
The DARD committee will this afternoon hear from Dairy UK, the UFU, dairy farmers and Ms O'Neill on the crisis.
Speaking ahead of the meeting, committee chairman and veteran farmer William Irwin (DUP) welcomed the emergency sitting to give the dairy sector "a platform to air their plight" and also to "hold the department accountable".
"I've called this meeting to discuss the crisis facing the dairy sector here in Northern Ireland," he said.
"It is imperative that those affected have a voice and are able to express the grave difficulties facing their business."
He added: "As a dairy farmer for four decades, I understand this situation better than most. Farmers appreciate that this is a global problem, therefore a solution does not lie with the Assembly."
Mr Irwin has called on Ms O'Neill to "deliver the much-needed cash injection of the Single Farm Payment on time or in advance of December".
"I will be proposing that the Rural Development Programme is used to support farmers. I will also be calling on the banks to show real and meaningful practical support, ensuring that farmers are given the flexibility to weather this storm," he said.
"It is imperative that we raise public and wider political awareness of the issues facing this sector.
"This will afford the opportunity for greater pressure to be applied to those who can help resolve the situation, especially in a wider UK and European sense."
DUP MLA Edwin Poots, who also sits on the committee, said dairy farmers have witnessed their income fall by a third over the last year.
"No business can continue to sustain these losses," he said.
"There is a responsibility on us as politicians and the general public to show support not just to the dairy sector but all sectors of agriculture. Agriculture as a whole is facing significant challenges with farm gate prices not covering the cost of production."