Belfast Telegraph

We need cash lifeline say farmers as extreme weather hits Northern Ireland crops

By Allan Preston

Food producers in Northern Ireland say they are "battling to keep crops alive" after facing months of extreme weather.

Heavy downpours throughout spring made establishing crops difficult, with the recent heatwave allowing no recovery time.

The Ulster Farmers' Union (UFU) has called for supply chain partners, including both large and small retailers, to support local growers as the largely dry weather continues.

UFU vegetable chairman Adrian McGowan has worked on Millbank farm in Killinchy, Co Down, since 1980, specialising in growing turnips and leeks.

He said growers here were experiencing their toughest year since 1976.

"We've only had 9mm of rainfall in July - normally you would expect 50-60mm - it's really unusual," he said.

"It hasn't been this hot since 1976, but it's even harder because of the conditions in spring.

"Back in 1976 a lot of farmers were issued with grants to equip themselves with irrigation equipment."

With this equipment now obsolete, Mr McGowan said many farmers have been caught off guard.

"People don't understand the lack of water available to farmers," he added.

"In times like this you have to pump it out of places like lakes, but you need a licence for that and it's just not so straightforward.

"You're allowed 10,000 litres a day, but anything over that you need a licence."

A typical acre requires 22-23,000 litres to irrigate.

"It's a huge amount of water, and we have growers with land ranging from a few acres to hundreds," Mr McGowan added.

"To be fair the Northern Ireland Environment Agency have co-operated with farmers on this but it still adds a lot of extra hassle."

Winter vegetables like cauliflower and broccoli also need plenty of water to establish for summer planting.

"The ground is bone dry at the moment," Mr McGowan said. "The rain this week is good but if this doesn't continue it causes crops like sprouts to wither and die, it's a very critical time of year."

Mr McGowan said the large supermarket retailers were likely to source produce elsewhere.

"The supermarkets are always looking for the best possible price and it's putting a downward squeeze on the sector - other factors like the increase in minimum wage also affect prices," he commented.

Co Down potato farmer Derek Erwin manages 200 acres at his farm on the Ards peninsula.

He explained: "It's put a lot of pressure on us. If things continue as they are we could be losing about 50% of our overall crop."

Last year, Mr Erwin said he was facing one of the worst harvests in living memory, and eventually lost 15% of his crop.

"We've been taking steps for extra irrigation, but it's hugely expensive. For one water tanker it costs £400 every single time."

He added that extra financial help for farmers would be "a lifeline", but said he's not holding out hope of the government intervening.

Mr McGowan called on retailers to urgently review farm gate prices across all field vegetables, taking into account the added costs of irrigation. "We are looking to our retail and processing partners to recognise this and the extreme circumstances we are facing," he added.

Belfast Telegraph

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