COMMENT: Farmers do not need even higher debt burdens

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Whatever deal is reached between the Ulster Farmers’ Union and the banks this week, it must not entail the creation of even higher debt levels on local farms.

Union president Ian Marshall summed it up well in last Saturday’s Farming Life when he described the economic factors now impacting on agriculture as the perfect storm – the ferocity of which no one had foreseen beforehand.

And the other point that has to be made is that farmers want to pay their debts – but they must be given a repayment model that gives them a fighting chance moving forward.

So the idea of some form of repayment holiday, which is currently being discussed, has serious traction when it is considered in this context.

It is a galling thought that many farmers currently in their fifties and sixties are looking back at a career in agriculture that stretches back over the past three decades, only to have had a lifetime’s work put in total jeopardy by a combination of international factors totally outside of their control.

This is one side of the equation: the other is to ensure a transition for younger producers that will allow them look to the future with confidence.

These then are the issues which the Union and the banks will have to address this week. For his part, Ian Marshall believes that all of the financial institutions will commit to bringing new thinking to bear over the coming weeks, when it comes to their future dealings with farmers.

The old saying that farmers are asset rich and cash poor has never been more relevant.

But it is the reality that producers have these significant resources to draw down from that should make the squaring of the circle associated with current debt levels achievable.

Let’s not forget that farming and food represent the biggest export earners that we have in Northern Ireland.

And it behoves the banks to be fully mindful of this fact as they work out their strategies for the future.