Government must make good on its vague promises over Brexit as our farmers continue to plough a tough farrow
There is a perception that farmers are awash with money. But as new statistics reveal, that is far from the truth. The average farm income last year fell from £25,000 to around £14,700, a dramatic decrease in just one year and far below the average wage. The situation improves when subsidies are taken into account, boosting income to more than £33,500, but even that was £9,000 lower than the previous year.
Considering the time and effort put into farming of any type and given that it is a 24/7 occupation, it is hardly an outstanding return. There are just over 24,500 farms in Northern Ireland but the number is steadily declining by around 1.5% a year, and in 2016, 379 farms ceased to operate.
There is strong anecdotal evidence that young people are deserting the land for less intense and possibly more rewarding occupations, and the decline in the number of farms would appear to bear that out.
It also has to be borne in mind that many farmers are operating with large bank loans. However, somewhat suprisingly, around 44% of farms do not have such liabilities.
While farm business incomes are expected to recover somewhat in the current financial year - though by no means wiping out last year's decline - there is another problem looming that could hit farmers severely.
The rural community, especially here in Northern Ireland, will be watching the Brexit negotiations very closely and will need to press the UK Government to come good on its somewhat vague promises that, on leaving the EU, it would make up the subsidies currently paid by Brussels. As already noted, these subsidies are vital to so many farmers.
So also are supply chain prices, with farmers continually complaining the big supermarkets are using their muscle to depress prices. We all want cheap food, but we also want high quality food, and that comes at a cost. Will it be possible to continue to provide both after Brexit, or will cheap imports hasten the drift from the land?