The Ulster Farmers’ Union says it is pleased the agriculture minister, Michelle O’Neill, has responded positively to its call for her to use the dairy sector stakeholder meeting she set up to focus on the deepening cash flow crisis generally and in the dairy sector in particular.
The UFU pressed two weeks ago for this to happen and its president, Ian Marshall, says the willingness of government and industry to come together is welcome.
“We know there is no magic bullet to increase prices – but until that happens government and industry needs to rise to the challenge of getting farming families through a very difficult winter,” he said.
The UFU says it is acutely aware cash flow is becoming a bigger issue on many farms. It says it will continue to press for a meaningful commitment from all the local banks to confirm that they are working with farmers on immediate cash flow difficulties and for what could be a long haul back to profitability.
“After an awful December for weather farmers – and not only dairy farmers – have feed bills that need to be paid, and the money isn’t there to do so. They also have to make plans to buy costly fertiliser – and that is a big challenge when you don’t have the funds in your account,” said Mr Marshall.
The UFU says that while cash flow will be its priority for the meeting on Thursday it will also be pressing for the entire industry and government to look towards long term solutions, more generally for the wider industry. These will include ways to tackle volatility, ranging from the big challenge of trying to even out markets to more practical initiatives, such as payment plans with agricultural merchants and the potential to deliver advance payments of CAP support this year.
“For now, however, we are acutely aware from our members that we need to make sure family businesses are still trading come the Spring – let alone when prices finally improve,” warned Mr Marshall.
Meanwhile, Chairman of Stormont’s Agriculture Committee William Irwin MLA has said farmers remain hopeful the 2016 farming year will be more encouraging than 2015.
Mr Irwin welcomed the plans for the early payments of subsidies in October this year, however he said October was still “a long way off”. Mr Irwin also referred to the current farm income statistics which he said “very clearly illustrated” the pressures currently being experienced.
He said: “For many farmers 2015 was a very difficult year in terms of just how pressured the markets have become and the fact that month after month farmers could not see any improvement in their financial position.
“As dairy farmer the forecasted statistics for 2015/16 of a predicted 78% fall in income is certainly cause for great concern and the pig sector is also facing a 51% drop. When you consider that regardless of outside market influences, the process of production remains the same with all the associated costs - for a sector to loose over half its value and more, is a really dire situation.
“There is also mounting concern over the impact of the very prolonged wet weather we have been experiencing for many weeks and how this will affect the start of the growing season. There is also the issue of ground conditions being unsuitable for slurry spreading and again this will add further pressures on the farmer.
“What is most frustrating for the farmer is the fact that most of the pressures on our sectors are from factors beyond the direct control of the farmer, therefore the actions that can be taken by the farmer in order to improve their own situation are very limited. The early payment of subsidy in October of course is welcomed, however there are many months between now and then and farmers will be concerned at the current income statistics and forecasts into 2016.”
He concluded: “The biggest challenge remains improving the price that farmers receive for their product and a fair recognition of the time, effort and expense invested in our farms across the Province in producing the food we all enjoy. More pressure will have to be exerted on the larger retailers as they continue to suppress farm gate prices to the severe detriment of our producers. Farmers must get a sustainable return on their investment otherwise the situation will only worsen.”