O’Neill must act now to support dairy sector

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With producer prices already well below the cost of production threshold for every dairy farm in Northern Ireland, Farm Minister Michelle O’Neill must act now to help protect the future prospects of the local milk sector.

The reality of all this is very simple: if milk goes into decline the knock-on effects for the rest of the rural economy are immense. Talk of record milk prices for the first half of 2014 is all fine and dandy. The reality is that most producers used the bit of profit they did generate at that stage to pay back debts incurred in 2012 and 2013.

Yes the banks have said they will support the dairy sector over the next six to nine months. But, at the end of the day, this will entail burdening farms with more debt, which will have to be paid back – with interest – at some future stage.

The real solution to the challenges facing the milk sector over the coming months can only come in the form of Brussels saying yes to a realistic support package for the industry. The current package of measures are not fit for purpose, given what’s coming down the track.

No doubt Michelle O’Neill will have to join forces with her Dublin counterpart Simon Coveney and the other UK farm ministers to get a head of steam building in the direction of Agriculture Commissioner Phil Hogan. And if this approach is required, so be it.

Too often in the past our political leaders – including the Commission in Brussels – have waited too long before introducing realistic support measures for specific sectors of agriculture that have come under immense financial pressures, through no fault of their own. And our dairy industry need only look back to 2012 and 2009 to recall how inaction on the part of Brussels played out on the ground in this part of the world.

As the old saying goes: prevention is always better than cure.

A happy and prosperous New Year to all Farming Life readers.