The Ulster Farmers’ Union says the movement of goods, and access to labour across the border, after Brexit are key concerns for farmers and dairy processors.
It took this message to Brussels this week, when it met senior dairy officials in the European Commission.
UFU dairy chairman, William Irvine said afterwards that Northern Ireland’s unique situation and the complexities of what will be a land border between the UK and EU are well recognised.
“A large number of dairy farmers here are members of co-ops in the South. Clearly, there are strong links between farmers here and processors south of the border, and indeed vice versa. This applies to other sectors as well as dairy, and we were encouraged that the will seems to exist in Brussels for a soft border,” he explained.
Trade after Brexit was also on the agenda, with the focus on the importance of minimising barriers.
“Tariffs on agriculture products would have a significant impact on the dairy industry. Being able to trade with the EU tariff free is crucial.
“There are also non-tariff barriers to consider as well. New UK trade deals with other countries, like the US or New Zealand, must not use agriculture as a bargaining chip,” said Mr Irvine.
The UFU is actively seeking ways to help the industry navigate uncharted territory.
“Dropping off the cliff edge is not an option. We are interested in UK food companies’ plans to maintain trade after Brexit – and, based on what they have told us, we believe the pan-European business Arla, which is a key UK player, has some interesting ideas,” said Mr Irvine.
“Dairy markets and the outlook on milk production were also discussed. Skimmed milk powder (SMP) production is on the rise, as the demand for butter increases. Butter prices are high and are likely protecting the market from weaker SMP prices. There is uncertainty around forecast milk volumes for spring. The UFU will continue to monitor how this develops.”
Meanwhile, Ulster Unionist MLA Robin Swann has said the announcement that next Wednesday the UK Government will invoke Article 50 of the European treaty must urgently concentrate the minds of all those who wish to see a sustainable future for local agriculture. He added:
“The decision of the United Kingdom in June last year to vote to leave the European Union was momentous, not only in its political significance but also the fundamental challenges it has created.
“There are few other sectors of the local economy that face to be affected by Brexit as much as agriculture. Suitable trade arrangements, such as the continued viability of cross-border trade, are absolutely essential for the survival of the industry, as is ongoing direct financial support.
“Whilst I very much welcomed the commitment from Philip Hammond that the Treasury will make up the shortfall in EU funding to farmers up to 2020 – it was still nothing more than a temporary stop-gap. What our farmers urgently need is clarity and certainty for future support, and right now there is nothing but a total policy vacuum.
“As a result of the collapse of the Assembly, and the ongoing difficulties in establishing a local Executive, Northern Ireland’s farmers have nobody at the negotiating table for them.
“Agriculture in the UK, and Northern Ireland specifically, is facing a seminal moment. Decisions taken over this upcoming negotiating period will affect entire generations of future farmers.
“Not only is this two-year negotiation process going to define the future relationship between the UK and the EU, but also important the nature of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic.
“It is therefore essential that now as Article 50 is triggered that this period is used to ascertain much-needed certainty for agriculture. Specifically, the design of a new scheme that would allow a model of land-based payments to continue must start now. There is no time to spare at all.”