The crisis gripping dairy farming requires a concerted effort to stave off disaster, the chair of the agriculture committee has warned.
Speaking on the eve of today’s emergency meeting at Stormont, William Irwin said the European Union, UK Government and agriculture minister could all do more to help.
Mr Irwin said: “We will be pushing the minister to do more. The minister, in her position, needs to get Defra (UK Department for Environment Food & Rural Affairs) to push for an ‘intervention price’.”
The DUP MLA added: “But we will also be pushing her to ensure that her department delivers the single farm payment on time, because farmers are going to be under a lot of pressure.”
At present, farmers receive around 19p a litre for their milk but they say they need closer to 27p a litre just to break even.
The EU stepping in to raise the base price paid for milk, regardless of market conditions, would be welcome, but Mr Irwin says the current intervention price was set in 2003 and is “no reflection on the cost of production” today.
He said: “Defra has been reluctant to press for this but, as we are a region within the UK, we need the UK Government to push for that. Banks have promised to be sympathetic, but the department also has to push the banks to ensure that they do take that sympathetic view, because if they don’t then the farmers are in dire straits.
“I am aware of farmers who have had to go back to their bank on three occasions between Christmas and now to get extensions on their overdrafts.”
Today’s committee meeting at Stormont will hear from Ulster Farmers Union (UFU) representatives, dairy farmers themselves and minister Michelle O’Neill.
The minister has said she will continue to lobby Europe to address the issue, and is to lead a delegation to meet the EU farm commissioner Phil Hogan within weeks.
UUP agriculture spokesperson Jo-Anne Dobson has accused the minister of being preoccupied by the ‘Going for Growth’ strategy and neglecting other key responsibilities.
The Upper Bann MLA said: “Over recent months, as pressure has continued to build on lamb and dairy farmers, it has become increasingly clear that the minister has got no plan B. It is all fine and well looking with awe at what might be achieved in the future, but unless she is protecting what we have got at the present then ultimately it will all be hypothetical.”
UFU president Ian Marshall said the support from politicians has helped “build a case for action” by the European Commission. Mr Marshall said other sectors in farming were also facing difficulties.
“Like the dairy sector they are being squeezed by the weak euro against sterling, making exports difficult and the UK market a magnet for eurozone and other suppliers.”