The crisis in Ulster farming is strengthening its grip as stark new figures reveal that the number of bankruptcies in agricultural businesses has more than tripled over the last 10 years.
There have been almost 200 bankruptcies in the agricultural sector in the last decade and those numbers are increasing year on year from 10 in 2002-03 to 33 last year.
With the rising cost of feed combined with poor crops caused by poor weather over the last year, many farmers are currently unable to even cover their costs, let alone make a profit.
Co Down farmer Colin McKee, who runs the successful McKee’s farm shop and restaurant in Craigantlet, told the News Letter that, before he diversified, he had got to the point where he would have been forced to take on a second job to keep his farm going.
Earlier this year the Ulster Farmers’ Union held a market to draw attention to how little money they received for products they produced.
In a sample price list, the UFU claimed that for 2.5kg of washed white potatoes they received 23p while customers paid up to £1.69.
For milk, farmers said they received 22p a litre whereas customers paid 70p a litre.
In terms of beef, farmers receive £3.08 for 1kg of topside while customers pay £9.97, and in terms of lamb, farmers receive £3.40 for 1kg shoulder while customers pay £13.34.
The new bankruptcy figures were released by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment.
Minister Arlene Foster said the Insolvency Service was unable to provide statistics on the number of farmers that had gone bankrupt as a result of the recession, but it can reveal how many bankruptcies there have been in the agricultural sector.
In the 2002-03 financial year there were 10 bankruptcies in the agricultural sector.
This figure has steadily increased to 33 in 2011-12.
The total number of bankruptcies in Northern Ireland in 2002-03 was 350, climbing to 1,569 in 2011-12.
DUP MLA Alex Easton said: “I am deeply concerned that there is a large leap in these bankruptcies. The Department of Agriculture needs to look at whether this is due to the recession or supermarkets not paying due prices to farmers.”
UFU spokesman Joe McDonald said the number reflected figures from the Department of Agriculture which showed that almost a farm business a day closed between 2009 and 2011, with 828 disappearing in those three years.
“This figures come as no surprise to us, and it has been a particularly tough year with extreme weather, continuing rises in the price of animal feed and disappointing prices,” he said.
“Cattle are now inside and need fed. Many farmers are facing serious cash flow problems.”
However Mr McDonald also pointed out that the number of farm businesses in Northern Ireland remained high at around 24,000, with plenty of young people at agricultural colleges.
Last week DARD officials were in China having meetings about opening new export links.
Mr McDonald said if the supply chain can be got to work properly, there is a future for local farmers.
Co Down farmer Mr McKee said if he had not diversified he would be out of business.
In 1999, he was faced with the choice of getting a second job. Instead he opened a farm shop which has since expanded into a shop and restaurant in the Craigantlet Hills which now employs 55 people.
However, he said he is aware that things are even worse for most farmers now, with some not able to cover their costs let alone make a profit.
He said: “Our option was to diversify. Not everyone can do that but I still think there is room for more farmers to diversify if they can get the right help and the right financial assistance to encourage them and help them.”