‘Let’s get the right Brexit deal for Ulster’s farmers’

UFU president Barclay Bell
UFU president Barclay Bell

Ulster Farmers Union president Barclay Bell is happiest in wellie boots down on his 200 acre farm in Rathfriland among his cows and sheep with the beautiful panorama of the Mourne Mountains in the distance.

“Farming is not just a job, it’s a way of life,” says Barclay. “Farming is just in your blood, you know? Once a farmer, always a farmer. It goes right back in my family.

“I love being out in a field of sheep or cattle or cutting a field of barley on a nice day. Nothing could be better.”

The affable 61-year-old runs a mostly arable farm growing wheat, oats and barley in Co Down, but he also keeps sheep and cattle and diversified to grow high-end peony roses 10 years ago - roses which are now sold to retailers such as Marks and Spencer.

A farmer like his father before him, Barclay can trace seven generations of his family back to the Rathfriland farm he has built into a budding success.

And the farm is very much a family affair with Barclay’s wife Lesley tending to the roses while sons Elliot (30) and Jonathan (28) and daughter Gina (25) enjoy being down on the farm while pursuing their own careers.

“We had to diversify and decided to grow roses 10 years ago in order to survive,” explains Barclay.

“Increasingly it is difficult for farmers to earn enough through the traditional streams without diversifying, so you have to think outside the box.

“Neither my wife Lesley nor I had any horticultural experience so we really just jumped in and took a risk with it. After two or three years we got some interest from M&S who had identified half a dozen types of flowers they felt would grow well in Northern Ireland and this was too big an opportunity to miss. We started with sunflowers and then moved to peony roses. There is a particular variety called Sarah Bernhardt which is a pink rose and this was very much in demand. We are the only specialist peony grower in Northern Ireland.”

Passionate about representing farmers’ interests, Barclay has been a member of the UFU for over 30 years and served as deputy before being elected president in April 2016.

The Farmers Union is crucial in giving the sector a public voice and essentially safeguards the interests of the agricultural community.

It was established in 1918 and helps influence government policy to protect farming.

“The Ulster Farmers Union is primarily a lobbying organisation and we are lobbying on a very wide range of issues from the core farming issues to wider rural issues,” explains Barclay.

“Our primary role is to speak for farmers. We have around 25 people working here at headquarters each with their own specialism from dairy to pigs and poultry, sheep and beef – every aspect of the farming sector. The total membership of our organisation would be about 11,000. A big part of what we do is to look at government policy and translate that so that we know what this will really mean for farmers in lay man’s terms.”

The farming sector in Northern Ireland produces an annual turnover of more than £4.5 billion and with an estimated 29,000 farmers working across the province, agriculture is a cornerstone of our economy.

The most significant issue affecting the sector at this time, as Barclay outlines, is the prospect of Brexit. Farmers receive crucial subsidies from the EU and much of the trade of their goods takes place within the EU market. Depressed prices and overly complicated regulations and bureaucracy led many farmers to vote to leave the European community but it is not clear how legislation will change or whether subsidies will be lost under a new dispensation. Traditionally farmers in Northern Ireland like elsewhere in the UK operate according to the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); Brexit will mean tearing up the rule book and replacing EU legislation with an alternative British agricultural bill.

“Brexit represents both challenges and opportunities,” says Barclay.

“There are issues that are going to be critical for farming going forward: trade and trade deals, the issue of labour especially in the processing sector and regulation, which is here to stay if we want to trade with major retailers.

“The UK is still only about 61% self-sufficient in food which produces real opportunity. Farmers can up their productivity and help to fill some of this gap.”

Bell is adamant that farmers need to get the right deal out of this difficult period of transition. There are question marks over many aspects of agricultural policy and although the government has pledged to safeguard farming subsidies until 2022 nobody is yet sure how the system will be managed after this date.

“A good deal on trade is so important for the future of farming here in Northern Ireland because we are a huge exporting region - over 80 per cent of our products are exported.

“The issue of trade and trade deals is the key Brexit issue and it is imperative we get the right policy decisions for the wellbeing of the sector. We want to be able to trade with the UK and the Republic of Ireland with a frictionless border. We would like to see the UK remain in the customs union or something akin to the customs union.

“We are a rural economy and the welfare of our rural communities depends on farming success.”

Barclay continues: “The main challenge with Brexit is that if the UK goes off and does deals with countries that aren’t meeting the same European standard with workers on less than the minimum wage then how do we compete with that?

“About 100,000 jobs here depend on the agri-food industry. If the UK goes and starts trade deals for produce from somewhere like South America because it is cheaper then that puts our sector at risk.”

Leaving the EU looks like a process that will be fraught with uncertainty.

“We are hoping for change in the way things are regulated,” adds Barclay.

“It’s very early days. We are told there is going to be a new agricultural bill in 2018 so we can’t sit back without acting – having an inactive government at Stormont isn’t helping. We’ve had to lobby to make new contacts in London and we have had the opportunity to meet with Michael Gove who is secretary of state for Defra (the Department of Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs). We’re trying to make sure the government understands the ways in which farming in Northern Ireland differs in comparison to the rest of the UK.

“It’s very much a small family farming structure here in comparison to the mainland where you have more corporate type farming and it’s important this is understood.”

If Britain leaves the EU market farmers here could be made to pay high tariffs under the World Trade Organisation in order to sell their goods in the European market and elsewhere.

“After Brexit we will be relying on the British government to support our industry as otherwise the future of farming would be in crisis.”

Barclay is committed to representing farmers’ interests at the highest levels and is hopeful the right deal will be reached so that Brexit will augment the success of the industry.

Talking to farmers on the ground, he intimately understands the complexities of how Brexit may impact on Ulster farming life.

“This is a members organisation and we like to be out and about meeting farmers and hearing about what is affecting them on the ground and what we can do to lobby in their best interests.

“It’s a tiring job working on the farm and leading UFU but it’s something I very much enjoy. Today farmers have to be a lot more business oriented and UFU lobbies tirelessly for farmers’ business interests.”

One of Barclay’s particular interests as UFU president is doing all he can to encourage younger people to find their way in farming.

“We want to see more young people going into farming with fresh ideas and perspectives. Some of the younger people who have come into the industry are absolutely tremendous and they look at things in a very different way. They are very business focused. We set up the land mobility scheme to match young people who want to farm with older farmers who do not have a successor as a way of encouraging more young people to join the sector. The important thing for the future of farming is trying to encourage and support the next generation of farmers and of course, striking profitable new trade deals with the EU.”

Bell is adamant that the future of farming depends on the British government pledging to support farmers and a comprehensive new agricultural bill to replace the common agricultural policy.

“Without a farming industry that is healthy the environment will begin to suffer, rural communities would suffer, there’s a whole chain of things that would happen if farming here is not supported and successful. Farmers are looking for some certainty about what Brexit will mean for their livelihoods.

“It’s tough for so many farmers trying to make a living and dealing with retailers and a downward pressure on prices. There is always going to be demand for our food but the British government need to be clear about wanting to support British farming.”