Farmers across Northern Ireland are in the grip of a genuine crisis - with their incomes having plummeted 41 per cent last year, it is claimed.
Figures released yesterday by the Department of Agriculture show that incomes in the crisis-hit industry have been slashed by £129 million to £183 million.
Agriculture Minister Michelle O’Neill said that while the huge drop will come as no surprise, the extent of the reduction is “concerning”.
Ulster Farmers’ Union president Ian Marshall described the fall as a “body blow” for the entire Northern Ireland economy and added that there is no evidence yet that 2016 will bring about the dramatic improvement needed.
Minister O’Neill said: “The total income from farming figure for the industry as a whole is at a level not seen for 10 years and the farm level estimates show that while all sectors have suffered, it has been particularly difficult for dairy and pig farmers.
“Poor prices have been the major contributor to this downturn. Depressed markets have caused major difficulties for farmers.”
Direct CAP payments, which amounted to £236million last year, act as a first line of defence in helping farmers through these difficult times, and the uncertainty around the future of these subsidies given a potential EU exit will further confound farmers’ fears. However, although prices have been down globally due to production overtaking consumption, we have been doubly hit because of exchange rate effects and, therefore, the crisis in agricultural markets has been all the more devastating for our farmers.”
Mr Marshall said the plunge in incomes was so great in 2015 that farm incomes were £53 million below what was received in Common Agricultural Policy payments. This meant farmers invested in their businesses and worked all year for less than they would have had for pocketing the CAP payment and doing nothing else.
He added: “These grim income figures are a body blow for farming families – but they are also a body blow for the entire Northern Ireland economy.
“Almost £130 million was taken out of the rural economy. That is money that would have been spent locally, meaning towns and villages across Northern Ireland will have felt the impact of hard times hitting the farming community.”
The UFU president said the figures underlined why they had fought so hard locally, in London and in Brussels for politicians, retailers, and the wider public to recognise the financial pressure on the farming industry.
“This moved the plight of farming up the political agenda – and we appreciate the support that came from the wider public, who took on board messages about the importance of local sourcing. All those we lobbied can now see that, if anything, things are even worse than we said. This certainly wasn’t a case of farmers crying wolf – this is a real financial crisis, and it is still there in 2016,” said Mr Marshall.
He said serious cash flow difficulties on farms is the immediate concern, with market volatility becoming an increasingly frequent and important issue for the industry.