Belfast Telegraph

UFU President: We knew from start a no-deal would be an absolute disaster for agriculture here

Ivor Ferguson, president of the Ulster Farmers' Union, tells Donna Deeney about his fears for the future of the industry here if there is a crashout Brexit

Ulster Farmers’ Union president Ivor Ferguson on his farm
Ulster Farmers’ Union president Ivor Ferguson on his farm
Away from his Ulster Farmers’ Union duties, Ivor Ferguson loves nothing more than to work his 100 acres, where he keeps sheep
Ivor putting out feed for the sheep
Ivor with his wife Barbara
Donna Deeney

By Donna Deeney

Q. What is your farming background?

A. I grew up in Markethill in Co Armagh but I suppose I am a little bit different from a lot of farmers in that I am a first generation farmer. My father Billy wasn't a farmer and in fact he passed away when I was just four.

I am an only child, so it was my mother Irene and me. My father had no interest in farming, although he did have 14 acres of land.

I spent a lot of time as a young boy with my grandfather, who was a farmer and kept sheep and pigs, and it was a result of working with him that I developed a passion for farming and never really wanted to do anything else.

Q. It must have been tough losing your father at such a young age?

A. When you are four years old you have limited memory, so it maybe would have been worse if I had been in my teens, but it certainly wasn't simple.

As I said, I spent a lot of time with my grandfather, who did have a farm that I farm now.

I went to the Royal School in Armagh and then I spent a year working on a farm in England before going on to Harper Adams College for three years in the autumn of 1969.

Q. Do you have a family of your own?

A. I met my wife Barbara at the Young Farmers' Clubs when we were both about 17 and we got married seven years later and I am 69 now and she is still here.

We have three daughters and one son.

My son Andrew is a mechanical engineer and two of our daughters, Leslie Ann and Laura, are vets while our other daughter Jane is a journalist in Beirut.

Leslie Ann is a vet in Australia, but she is in the process of relocating to Northern Ireland.

Barbara used to work as a civil servant but she was always interested in old buildings, so she took a bit of time out of her work to be a tour guide for her local council and she loved it so much she has made a career out of it.

She set up her own business, and with so many visitors from America who are so interested in our farms, she is able to give them a good insight.

Q. You took over as president of the Ulster Farmers' Union in 2018. How much of your time is taken up by the job?

A. There are lots of weeks when I never see my farm because our workload in the presidential team has increased greatly simply because of Brexit.

It was always a busy role but we have to spend so much time dealing with this at the moment that I would hardly ever be on the farm.

Q. Do you miss being on the farm and carrying out the day-to-day jobs?

A. I certainly do miss that. After a busy week negotiating with politicians and Government it is quite a relief to walk around the farm on a Sunday, if nothing else.

For my whole lifetime I had been involved in pig farming until a year ago when I retired from pig farming because I had no one following behind me that was as passionate about it as I was.

I still farm over 100 acres, we keep sheep and we are looking at one or two new enterprises that would suit my daughter and my son, who would have an interest.

They have careers of their own, but without their interest it would be difficult to keep the farm going.

Q. Will you be glad when someone else takes up the position?

A. I have been in this role for a year-and-a-half now, but before that I did four years as deputy president.

I would certainly miss the buzz of the Farmers' Union work. It sort of consumes you, but when I do hand it over I would still want to be actively involved in the Farmers' Union.

It will not be a case of me signing off and disappearing into the woods, so long as I am fit and able to do it.

Q. What has been the highlight of your time as UFU president so far?

A. I don't think there is a single pointer I could mention. There are so many different aspects to the work that I do.

We are dealing with queries from farmers on a weekly basis, we are dealing with all our politicians.

We don't have a local Assembly but we speak to Government officials on a daily basis, especially from the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs. We have had three meetings with the new Secretary of State and we speak to politicians in Westminster.

We are also members of Copa-Cogeca, which is the umbrella group for farmers in the 28 member states of the EU, and meet with them every two months.

My objective has always been to lift the profile of the Ulster Farmers' Union so we get a fair deal for our farmers.

Q. Brexit looms large in everyone's life but perhaps farmers will be among those most affected, especially if there is a no-deal. What are your on thoughts on how it could impact on farmers?

A. We don't know whether there will be a deal or not as we come nearer the time. I used to think that would become clear but in fact it is the opposite. That uncertainly lives with us every day.

Farming and the agri-food industry will be the sector most hit in Northern Ireland because we are the region with a land border with the South.

The impact will be sizeable because the farming and agri-food industry is the biggest sector in the Northern Ireland economy, so it will have a big impact on farming and on Northern Ireland as a whole, which is something I think we have to take note of.

Q. What are your views on Brexit and how it has been handled?

A. We did support Teresa May's agreement. We took that decision last October. There are quite a few things about the EU we were not happy about and there were things about Teresa May's withdrawal agreement that we were not happy with either, but at the end of the day we had two choices - we could support the Prime Minister's agreement because that would get us over the line and we could begin negotiations with the EU, or the only other option we had was a no-deal.

We knew from the word go that a no-deal was going to be an absolute disaster for Northern Ireland farming.

The deal didn't go through because what we as businesses wanted was very different to what politicians wanted, which was very disappointing. At the end of a long day we can't do without the market that the EU presents to us - 500 million people.

Q. Farmers appear to have been one group who benefited from EU membership because of Common Agriculture payments and subsidies. Do you think the loss of these payments coupled with the new tariffs will cost some farmers their farms?

A. When the HRMC brought out the new tariff regime, whereby they will lower the tariffs well below what the WTO tariffs are, or the common external tariffs that protect us - not only did they lower the tariffs greatly, but they lifted the tariffs completely for products from the Republic of Ireland into Northern Ireland.

That alone will have a devastating effect on the marketplace and will leave us very vulnerable.

The profit margins for farming are quite low so I believe if there is a no-deal and this tariff structure is put in place there is no doubt that there will be some farmers that will not survive.

Q. Fewer young people are interested in taking on the family farm. Is this a big fear for farmers, that a farm that has been in one family for generations will be sold?

A. I don't think farmers are afraid their sons or daughters won't take over from them. It is a fact of life that young people go to university and choose another career. That happened in my case.

There are lots of farmers who inevitably will sell their farms, but there is a positive side to that.

On the other side of the coin there are lots of farmers who have sons or daughters who want to farm, but the family farm is too small to sustain two families.

I am very passionate about young farmers, because I was able to start up in farming from scratch, more or less.

I believe that ladder is there, maybe it is a bit higher off the ground, but there are lots of opportunities for young people coming out of universities.

There is a Land Mobility Scheme that is a match-making service in many ways - it matches up farmers who want to retire completely or step back a bit with young folk who want to take on a farm.

Q. Reports recently mentioned the number of cattle thefts and cattle being taken across the border by thieves - how big an issue is rustling for farmers along the border.

A. This is a very big issue for farmers, especially in south Armagh where I live and it is something we are very concerned about.

We have a lot of elderly farmers - the average age of a farmer in Northern Ireland is 58 - who live in isolated areas and possibly live alone.

The fact that someone can come in and steal livestock has a devastating impact on these farmers, not only financially but also mentally.

It had been the thinking in the past that these cattle went down South, but we think now that maybe is not the case. We think they may be disposed of in Northern Ireland as well.

Q. A report by NFU Mutual last month said that some farmers are afraid to leave their farms now. Is it because they are in isolated areas?

A. Yes. Farmers certainly feel vulnerable living in isolated areas, but there is also the concern of their personal safety as well and they are afraid of the financial implications.

Q. Farm safety is another big issue. Do you think farmers are more aware now of the dangers that exist on the farm and take their personal safety seriously?

A. There is no doubt about that, so too the good work the Farm Safety Partnership that the Farmers' Union sits on.

The message is certainly getting out to farmers, especially our young generation of farmers. They are very aware of the dangers and they do consider all the risks before they start working on farms. The problem is the older generation are more difficult to train in this respect, because they have always done things a certain way. These are the people who are more vulnerable. They have been used to taking risks in the past and may not be up to speed about the dangers of slurry gas, for instance.

Q. How do you see the future of the industry?

A. I would be quite optimistic about the future. I know that farms will have to get bigger and we are already very efficient in Northern Ireland.

We have to make sure we have viable farm units. That is a concern for us, but we have a lot of things going for us.

We have a lot of young people who want to farm, we have a big market on our doorstep. Mainland GB is only 60% self-sufficient in food.

The population is rising and there will always be a demand for food, and one other advantage is that we have a very high quality product.

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