Non optional Blue Print for Rural Northern Ireland

Farming families and therefore rural merchants and traders in Northern Ireland by and large have hit the financial buffers – farmers find themselves in the position where the sale price for the majority of commodities they produce does not even cover the input costs.

Banks are finding it increasing difficult to justify lending money to increasingly non-profitable farmers, instead rural merchants, vets etc are being forced into the position of secondary bankers to (many) farmers. With 1 in 4 UK family farms living below the poverty line (2010 figures), all in all a disastrous situation with no future is now with us.

Meanwhile, large processors, large corporate food wholesalers and corporate retailers continue to maintain their enormous unsustainable profits.

Rural NI must have its share of the financial food cake. The Farm Groups would make it clear that there is no need for consumers to pay more other than normal inflationary increases, instead we want our fair share of the money, currently going into the corporate food sector profits and it will take legislation to obtain it.

Currently individual family farmers are too weak in the market place to command a decent price for their produce and unfortunately to date even with attempts by farm organisations across Europe, it has been impossible to bring farmers together in sufficient numbers and strength to overcome the power and influence of the corporates and they know this and abuse the fact every hour of every day to their profitable advantage. Indeed, the EU has admitted publicly that a) food security is now top of the agenda and b) this is about agriculture not just any old industry and c) farmers need a safety net.

The time has come where Northern Ireland Government has no choice but provide that safety net for Northern Ireland’s family farmers if NI Plc is to succeed in lieu of the deficit to date from Westminster and Brussels.

The Group’s proposal is timely in that the Agri Food Strategy Board report Going For Growth announced earlier, cannot and will not succeed without profitable farmers in NI. So what is the Group’s proposal? Quite simple, almost exactly the same as that submitted by Fairness for Farmers in Europe as a stakeholder to the 2010/11 CAP review, that of NI legislation being put in place stating that NI farmers must be paid a minimum of the cost of production plus a margin inflation linked for their produce and if the ‘free’ market moves up then fine the farmer will get the benefit, however, when it falls the legislation is there to provide the safety net limit of drop.

Where is the evidence for the success of this proposal? There is that age old saying, “When the farmer is doing well then everyone else is doing well” but sounder evidence is the fact that during the 30’s depression in the US, President Roosevelt could not get the US economy to move until he put money in farmers’ pockets. NI farmers with money in their pockets would purchase products and services from an average of 123 different types of businesses from plastics, to machinery, to veterinary to accountants, to oil and lubricant suppliers, to building supplies, the list goes on. Indeed there are only two types of wealthy countries in the world or a combination of both, ie those who are energy rich (ie oil and gas) or those with a good agricultural base, Zimbabwe a disastrous case in point.

How would legislation on NI farm gate prices work? – In recent years the Livestock and Meat Commission employed McKinsey’s International Consultants to professionally work out the cost of production including money for re-investment of beef and lamb production in Northern Ireland. McKinsey’s did so very successfully by gleaning the information from the top 10% of farmers across NI, totally independent of processor or retailer or even farmer influence, all of these factors a must. These results could easily be done for all the food related commodities produced by NI farmers and adjusted for inflation or deflation every 6 months. On a European scale this proposal would require flexible supply control, ie quotas, on all commodities but quotas without value. However, in NI because we are small in comparison to the whole of the EU influence this would not be required. The results of such legislation would in fact have a useful quota effect in itself. It would create balance in the countryside creating good change in farming practices such as :-

  1. a) A reduction in available conacre as owners decide farming is now a profitable option and farm it themselves
  2. b) One sector for example could not expand over and above any other sector, due to lack of land because the balanced requirement for land would come from all commodity sectors
  3. c) Pressure on land would once again help farmers to increase good farming practices and invest in new technology and good farming methods such as instead of cutting and spraying rushes, lime would be applied due to money available; hedges would be brought under control, fences would be mended and replaced, drainage would be carried out. All this in harmony with nature as profitable farmers can easily produce more food in Northern Ireland whilst abiding by commonsense environmental laws.
  4. d) There would be a certain amount of musical chairs of farming practices. In recent years many farmers, for example, moved into dairying or chickens because of the then perceived regular income which has since been eroded. Other farmers who were beef, vegetables or other minded, would therefore switch enterprise due to profitable options, thereby creating a balanced agriculture in NI. It would in effect be a new dawn in NI agriculture, a land mark where farmers could afford to embrace new technology, they could afford to repair their sheds or build new more efficient ones, they could afford to purchase much needed new efficient safety equipment, they could afford to pay staff, to cut the current slavery hours currently being worked by farming families and their staff. In fact the Groups can confirm that if this legislation is introduced it could create a minimum of 30,000 new professional on-farm jobs followed by approx 120,000 related jobs. Without exception, every farmer we have put the question to – ‘If legislation was in place to provide you with a minimum of the cost of production inflation linked plus a margin for your produce would you employ a member of staff or members of staff, the answer is always a loud – of course I would!’

Furthermore, approx 60% of NI farmers are part time – many of those would go full time if agriculture was profitable thereby creating a vacancy for others – by now you will have got the scale of this proposal for Northern Ireland.

Down to legislation – due to the current rural financial crisis and after the experience of 2012’s Spring where many NI farmers were faced with atrocious weather conditions and no spare money in their pockets – in fact many were unable to feed their families and there was an ongoing increase in calls to farm crisis centres by farmers at the end of their tethers. The legislation must go through on a welfare issue and farming families protected from corporate ravages for endless profit.

Precedents are already being set with regard to the EU “free market”:

  1. a) by the Scottish Government on minimum priced alcohol proposal in supermarkets on a welfare issue and
  2. b) for the second time in recent years the EU itself has intervened in the free market by capping EU roaming charges by mobile phone companies.

In short on the plus side if Stormont were to legislate on NI farm gate prices as proposed by the NI Farm Groups, then virtually overnight a minimum of 30,000 initial jobs plus over the next 5 years would be the additional x4 multiplier of jobs that follow every job on the farm, in addition to the 15,000 processing industry jobs the Agri Food Strategy Board report proposals suggests, creating a total of 165,000 NI jobs minimum = an exceptional result which would allow NI Plc to firmly turn the prosperity corner and not look back.

NI family farmers badly need your help in protecting their incomes from the corporates, just as you need them every meal time!

To conclude, the Farm Groups hereby request that Stormont puts forward a Bill for Legislation on Northern Ireland farm gate prices as a matter of urgency under a rural welfare crisis, stating that a minimum of the cost of production plus a margin inflation linked must be paid at the farm gate for all the food produced in Northern Ireland.