The RUAS Winter Fair may be celebrating its 30th anniversary today but for many Northern Ireland dairy farmers there is little cause for celebration.
Thousands of farmers will be at Balmoral Park for the annual dairy showcase event, however the mood within the industry remains one of gloom with little positivity looking to the future.
Charlie Weir, of lobby group Fair Price Farming NI, explained that the current situation looks bleak.
“Currently, many farmers are being helped by the banks just to stay in business. The cost of production of milk is around 25-26p a litre but they are only receiving 18 pence per litre plus a winter bonus for their product,” he explained.
“There is a lot of talk at the minute that we could be looking at 16 pence per litre in January and, if that comes, the industry is in trouble - dairy farmers simply cannot sustain their businesses on that kind of price.”
There are many factors influencing the prices such as the current euro-pound exchange rate, fluctuations in the cost of feed and the ban on imports from the European Union in place in Russia.
As an area that exports around 80 per cent of its milk, Northern Ireland is vulnerable to such volatility in the market.
Mr Weir continued: “If the government wants a dairy industry, they are going to have to step in and help.
“The dairy sector is part of a chain within the agriculture industry - if it goes down there will be a knock-on effect impacting on beef and arable.
“The agriculture industry employs around 100,000 people and if the dairy sector collapses, rural communities will be decimated.”
Mr Weir said Fair Price Farming NI had been lobbying EU Agriculture Commissioner Phil Hogan for intervention.
He highlighted that other EU member states such as Spain, France and Belgium had all stepped in with measures to help their farmers.
Mr Weir continued: “Dairy farmers are under extreme pressure. I know of farmers who have had enough. They’ve sold the herd, paid the debts and are walking away. I know of others who are feeling the strain so badly that they are receiving medical help.
“The Single Farm Payment money will help pay the bills for now, but if the 16 pence per litre comes in January the industry is in trouble.”
Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU) president Ian Marshall was similarly blunt in his assessment, saying simply there is “no glossing over” how bad a year it has been for dairy farmers, adding: “Many producers are facing challenging times attempting to manage cash-flows this winter.
“Whilst the UFU have campaigned to secure on-time payments from DARD (EU Dairy Aid and Basic Payment Scheme), we are aware this will only help in the short term, rather than solve the financial crisis on dairy farms across Northern Ireland. Markets do eventually turn, but surviving to get there is the challenge. Analysts are suggesting some recovery in mid-2016, but farmers are wary of false dawns, having seen a number this year already.
“For the future, we have to keep this issue high on the political agenda. As an industry, we must also be looking towards longer term measures to control volatility, so that we are not compelled to live with a boom and bust cycle.
“In line with this, the UFU are working with Dairy UK NI on how best to tackle milk price volatility once and for all. In the New Year we will publish our thinking and will stage a seminar, with a number of high-profile speakers.”
Fair Price for Farmers NI and the Ulster Farmers’ Union will be at the Winter Fair.