Vegetable sector in crisis over prices

Three of the many Armagh vegetable growers who are deeply concerned about the future of their industry. From left to right: Jim Fearon; Martin McArdle and Paddy Finn
Three of the many Armagh vegetable growers who are deeply concerned about the future of their industry. From left to right: Jim Fearon; Martin McArdle and Paddy Finn

Most local vegetable growers will be out of business within 24- 36 months unless the supermarkets start to pay realistic prices, according to a group of Co Armagh growers.

Earlier this week Farming Life’s Richard Halleron met a number of the growers in order to hear their grievances at first hand. Cumulatively, they produce a high proportion of the speciality vegetables grown in Northern Ireland, including cabbage, other brassicas, lettuce, scallions, leeks, turnips and carrots.

“We are not looking for enormous price increases,” said Paddy Finn, of Kilmore Farm Produce.

“In my case an extra five pence on a bunch of scallions would be more than sufficient to keep me in business for the next couple of years.

“Loughgall cabbage grower Martin McArdle agreed.

“I have not received a price increase for my produce in years. People within the industry keep telling us that we have to become more efficient.

“But we have already been through that process. We can’t become any more efficient. And if it’s a case of investing further in our businesses, we can’t do that until we get improved prices for our output.”

The two largest lettuce and celery growers in Northern Ireland, Pat Smith and Shane Donnelly, also believe that their businesses are not sustainable for any more than two years if there is not a pay increase to keep up with rising costs.

Vegetable growers across the board are highlighting the stagnant returns for their produce, set against their ever increasing cost base, as the drivers that will put them out of business in the very near future.

“Another important factor is the inordinate length of time it takes to get paid,” said Loughgall grower Jim Fearon.

“In my own case it is a minimum of four months. No normal business could stick a cash flow squeeze of this magnitude.”

Earlier this year members of the Ulster Farmers’ Union Vegetable Committee met Farm Minister Michelle O’Neill to highlight the crisis within the vegetable sector.

“The minister was sympathetic and indicated that she would take these issues up on our behalf,” said Paddy Finn.

“That was back in April and we are still awaiting a response. The minister suggested the establishment of a forum that would represent growers directly when it came to negotiating with the supermarkets.

“This idea has legs but it will also take the active input of the Ulster Farmers’ Union to make it work. In fact, it is incumbent on the UFU to take a more proactive stance on behalf of the vegetable sector as a whole.

“This is not rocket science. My annual wage bill has increased by £80,000 over the past five years.

“All my other costs are escalating. If I don’t get an increase in the prices paid for my produce, then I am out of business.

“It’s as clear cut as that.”

A spokesman for Michelle O’Neill told Farming Life that the minister is very aware of the challenges facing the vegetable sector.

“She will respond to the growers in the near future,” he said.

The spokesman also suggested that the Agri-Food Strategy Board will have a 
role to play in identifying a way forward for the vegetable sector.

Responding to these developments UFU president Ian Marshall said that he is acutely aware of the current situation facing vegetable growers and added:“We have had several meetings with them over the past six months and indeed this week we met specifically with Paddy Finn to discuss these difficulties.

“We are committed to finding a workable solution for growers and continue to meet with processors and retailers on the price being paid.”