Farming in Crisis Spotlight

Farming in Crisis

Hard-hitting investigations. Brian Hollywood investigates the crisis facing Northern Ireland's farmers.

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This land provides for �1 billion farming industry that many hope


will revitalise our economy. But behind that aspiration, the outlook


is grim. In my 46 years, I have never seen


it as bad. If we are going to stay the way we


are, I don't see a bright future for farming.


Farmers are hurting. Could our demand for cheap food be


responsible? The cost of food will have to go up.


Hopefully farmers will get some of that. Otherwise they won't be there.


They will just disappear. It was one of the wettest summers


on record, and the economic forecast for farmers is bleaker


than at any time in decades. With the rural economy at breaking point,


just what is the future of farming Summer rains this year and


extraordinary flooding. Four months on, the consequences are still


being felt on the land. It is early November in County


Armagh. The sowing season has come and gone. Land like this remains


unplanted. This field would normally be bursting with vegetable


ready tobg harvested but because of the atrocious summer it wasn't


planted in June. The cost of this to farmers is huge and right across


the countryside fields like this are lying baron.


Thomas Gilpin has never known things to be as bad as this. He


provides large quantities of farm produce for supermarkets. But even


where his farmers have been able to plant fields this year, they have


had scant return. You see here Brian, there is not


even tops on these swedes. That's never going to be a swede.


They are badly under sized? They have plenty of nutrients and plenty


of anything and because of the lack of sunshine and heat they haven't


grown. I would give awe fiver if you could find find one...


that's a descent size? A descend size.


-- -- a descent size. The supermarkets wouldn't be


interested in those? People want one you can peel. Those beds are


sitting up out of the wet and they just haven't grew. In my 46 years,


I have never seen it as bad and it is just, there is nothing we can do


about it. Everybody involved in the sector at the moment from the


grower, right through to the washer and packer like ourselves right


through to the man making the preparation of it all, nobody is


making any money. In fact, everybody is losing a bit of money


at the moment and there is going to have to be something done so people


can be sustainable for the next year's crop. There is a crisis.


Thomas says the the outlook is grim and expects many in his sector to


go out of business this winterment even even potatoes are imported. It


is not just bad bad weather that brought bad news to an industry


that's at breaking point. These pigs are all that's left of a


700 strong herald kept on a once thriving farm outside Cookstown.


Only these sows remain. They are on a final journey from farm to meat


processor and for the farmer, it is the end too of a 20-year investment


in pork production. When you walked up the yard, you heard pigs


squealing or something, but there will be no more of that for a


highly anyway. When you look into a house and it is empty, it is


demoralising. James can no longer afford to feed


them and feels forced to send these breeding animals to the abattoir.


He thinks they will ultimately end up on dinner tables in Germany. It


is a rapid reversal of for ture that led a prize winning pig farmer


to wind up operations and slaughter his herd.


Six months ago, I hadn't anticipated this, but it is the way


the feed prices went up. The price of feed and bread and all those


things went up. . How much do you get per pig?


need about �135 per pig and we are only getting �120.


Every animal going out through the door is losing money and that's why


I decided to stop rather than keep losing money. If it was profitable,


at least I'm starting off with a clean sheet, other people have to


make back what they have lost before they start again.


High feed costs and poor prices hit pig farming hard, especially since


the sector is not subsidised. The houses for over 700 animals are


now empty. James Millar designed and welded each pen himself. Now,


they are redundant. His entire Even those farmers who do receive


subsidies are struggling. This is Ray Elkin, a beef farmer who says


business is more uncertain than ever. Today is the day he has been


dreading. His cattle are being tested for TB.


If this vet finds even one of the cattle tests positive, this farm


will be closed for months. It will mean that the farmer can't sell any


of them. He will incur all the expense of feeding them for the


foreseeable future too. It is a nervous time for you?


Absolutely. It is not only a nervous time, it is a dangerous


time because we are letting out animals into a yard who are quite


lively and it is a risk to them, but not only to them, but also to


the human being. Every time you let an animal into a


yard, there is another possibility of someone getting hurt.


The family used to breed pigs, but found it difficult to make a profit.


Beef was good business, but it is now a question of working just to


cover costs. It has got worse. It has changed.


It used to be the pigs and then that went by the way side and it is


constant hard work for very little reward.


The possibility of TB is not the biggest worry by any means.


Prolonged wet weather has forced him to bring his cattle in from the


fields earlier than usual. They are already fielding on expensive


winter fodder. Times are difficult, yeah. Times


are difficult. We hope that next Across the industry costs have gone


in one direction - upward. And profit has either gone down or


been wiped out entirely. For farmers who want to sell their


stock, it is at places like this where the action happens. I have


come to Ballymena, the biggest auction for live stock in Northern


Ireland. I have been told that cattle prices


here don't compare to even 12 months ago. For farmers, returns


are too low and costs are too high. I think some of the figures we have


seen would suggest that annually in Northern Ireland we would use about


two million tonnes of feed and when you consider the increase in feed


costs, that will equate to �160 million and �160 million is just


about the net farm income here in Northern Ireland. So you know,


there is a lot of concern out there. I think the farmers are a resilient


bunch but they can only take so much, and it is a very sad


reflection on the industry that the profitability isn't there.


High costs hurt, but it is a series of factors that are hitting farming


hard. You get -- it has been a horrendous


year for weather as far as prices are concerned. They have stayed


static throughout most of the year and their costs are rising. They


are in a real classic income squeeze. So no, I don't think this


time they are crying wolf, they are in a genuine crisis.


And the crisis threatens to keep the next generation of farmers off


the land. The Taylors' farmed outside


Coleraine for generations. Denis wants to follow his father into


farming. Hi Denis. How are you? Well what


happened today? Oh just general feeding and get the houses cleared


for cattle. Are these for market soon?


Hopefully for market around Christmas time. Denis says the


returns from the land aren't enough. At the minute there is nothing to


encourage young people into farming and if things stay the way they are,


I will not be at it in a year's time or maybe two years time, I


can't justify it anymore and I have my family to think of. We are not


getting what it is costing us to produce the food. It is very hard


to explain how it feels to be in a downward industry at the minute.


People don't see the downs, it is a heartbreaking job at times too.


Nobody else would work for less than the cost of production. So why


should we? While the industry is frequently


referred to as a billion pound success story, farms here only see


a tinly fraction of this. A few months ago, Ulster Farmers' Union


members took their grievances to the consumer. They staged a protest


and opened a farm stall for the public, selling food at the price


they would get from supermarkets. It costs you �4.50. We only get


�1.50 for it. Farm Farmers say prices don't cover


their costs. A chicken at �1.15. That's terrible. It is disgraceful.


Absolutely disgraceful in this day and age. I love getting paid for my


job. They should be able to get paid for their job.


Derry farmers protested in England and Wales at the low prices


supermarkets and their suppliers were paying them for their milk.


Some big named store stores upped prices for farmers. Recent figures


show milk prices have risen here too, but for cattle farmers like


Ray Elkin, covering his annual costs remains a struggle, farmers


like him are clear on where the problem lies. They say relailers


simply -- retailers simply aren't paying enough.


The big retailers tell us they are buying X number of tonnes of


produce from Northern Ireland, why wouldn't they? It is below the cost


of production. This complaint is echoed across


Northern Ireland. Many farmers say they have been disregarded by the


retailer. It is a view shared by Sean McCauley who farms outside


Ballymoneyy. We are working below cost of


production figures. It is not sustainable. An industry that


provides one vital item that people need on a regular basis and that's


food. But quality food produced to the highest standards and the


producer on the ground is not getting paid for what he is


producing. Like others we have spoken to, Sean


believes that supermarket chains can afford to pay farmers like him


more, without adding to their customer's shopping bills. But


representatives for the supermarkets say the consumer comes


first. Retailers like those you represent


are making gigantic profits, billions of pounds a year, surely


they could give a little more to ensure the the of the agriculture


sector? As far as the market that we have here in Northern Ireland,


yes we work a lot with our suppliers. Yes, we do buy a huge


amount in Northern Ireland, but what we are trying to do is bring


that to a wider market. What we are trying to do is make sure that


there is a sustainable supply chain and we are trying to make sure


there is an affordable quality produce there for the consumer in


Northern Ireland. I have been doing a round of


meetings with the supermarkets and we are doing all we can to support


farmers. Are you talking to the supermarkets in such a way to get


them to give a fairer price? the farming minister and that's my


job. That's my role. We will continue to engage with them


because it is important we emphasise the smaller pricing they


are giving to farmers, it is important we highlight that issue


and how it is impacting on farmers income.


We asked the biggest supermarkets here why farmers weren't getting a


better deal? They said they were giving a fair price and they did


all they could to support the local farming industry. They pointed out


that farmers deal directly with processors. Are they keeping down


the prices? The processors said they were finding it difficult in


the current economic climate. In an industry where official figures


suggest an average of one farm closure every day in recent years,


they said more could be done on price by the supermarkets.


Well, our friends in the supermarket and I call them our


friends because we have to work with them, is going to have to


lower their expectations of their margin and give a little more as


one of the leading supermarkets say, "Every little helps." Is going to


have a little more to the people like ourselves who can give their


growers more or a lot of growers will not be here for next year.


Other processors say the market is ruled by the demand for cheap food.


It is easy to have a go at supermarkets in any discussion like


this. For the Northern Ireland industry, they are amongst the best


customers that we have. Yes, we would love them to pay for more but


they will be the ones who will tell us the implications from the point


of view of their customers. Supermarkets and processors told us


that it is the market that decides, that means you, the consumer. Do


you think that you would be willing to pay more at supermarkets to


support local farmers? Yes. If it was a Northern Ireland product I


would. Would you be willing to pay more if


you thought it would help the farmers? Of course, because I'm


from a rural area so the farmers deserve to get more money. They are


not getting enough. The supermarkets are doing the


farmers damage. People are looking for cheaper


prices, but it is unfortunate the farmers are suffering because of it.


Farmers protested across the UK, but our local meat producers get


less than our counterparts in Great Britain a and are losing up to �120


to �140 per animal. Would you say you got a different


price than the farmers in England, Scotland and Wales might might get?


We are producing to the same standard, in fact we hit those


standards before anyone else and the sister plants here and across


the water are buying the same kind of animals are are going to markets


at reduced prices, it is making life difficult.


Again, responsibility for this is unclear.


When we meet the processor, they blame the retailer. When we meet


the retailer, they say they are giving the same price to somewhere.


Somewhere along the line, somebody is telling porkies.


We put this to our main supermarkets, they declined to


speak to Spotlight. Some later told us they couldn't go into detail for


commercial reasons. We aren't the only ones wanting to


get to the bottom of price. Next year, Westminster will appoint a


grocery adjudicator charged with with investigating complaints about


prices paid in the sectorment until recently, the creation of this role


had been resisted by almost all of the UK supermarkets.


Why did the supermarkets resist the adjudicator for so long? I think


like all of these regulatory issues it is not a case of resisting, it


is a case of making sure what is put in place is the best for


everyone concerned. That it is a case that it is not regulation for


the sake of regulation. That it is not doubling up on regulation that


already exists and that it is fair and open.


We also asked the meat processors about the price difference. We have


a seasonal nature to our business as they have south of the border


which doesn't exist across the water in GB. That Seasonal side of


the business means for the past number of weeks we have seen prices


here weaker than they have been in So farmers are getting less money


here? At this moment in time in the autumn of the year whenever we are


in pig slaughter season, the reality is when cattle numbers are


at their highest, you will find our prices are weaker than they are for


the rest of the year. The farming union says this affects


us all, with Northern Ireland losing out to the tune of millions


of pounds a year, they say more should be done.


I think supermarkets need to appreciate the farmer more. Some of


our processors need to appreciate the farmer more. This summer,


within the beef sector, we have seen a price difference of about 40


pence per kilo between here and mainland UK and you know that


equates to about �140 an animal. It is about �1 million a week is being


lost to the Northern Ireland economy.


What is clear is that Northern Ireland and the businesses within


it, including farming, are part of a global picture now as never


before. Nick Price is one of Belfast's most established chefs


and restaurant owners. He has represented the food sector


publicly for several years and feels our relationship with farming


and the food it produces has to change.


We have had cheap food for a very long time. I think in the economy


that we are in the world at the moment, the cost of food will have


to go up. Hopefully farmers will get some of that. Otherwise, they


won't be there. They will just disappear.


Nick is one of those who argues that innovation is critical if


farms here are to survive. I don't think just because you grew


cows and sent them to slaughter, it is enough for you to grow cows and


send them to slaughter. That is not being anti-farming, moving forward,


we want a vibrant, profitable farming industry.


But it is the lifeline of European subsidies that keeps farming alive


here. Most of the aid, �0.25 billion arrives in the form of the


single farm payment.. People say it is unfair that farmer are


subsidised. You either pay the subsidy and you get cheap food or


you don't pay the subsidy and you have to pay a higher price for food


in the shops. But That subsidy is vital to farmers here and this will


be one of them and it is likely to be more than the total income from


farming. Many new farmers came into the business only after the


qualifying period for subsidies ended. As a result, they get


nothing. Sure the first thing the bank would ask me is how much is my


single farm payment for paying it back, so it was no benefit to me.


You don't get any payment? I don't get any payment. It is the first


thing the bank wants to know because it is the only sure money


you have. Three generations of Taylors have


worked the land here. The family isn't certain that a fourth


generation will follow. Until he can afford to move out, Denis lives


with his wife and children on his father, William's farm. William is


calling for action. Farmers like him propose that Europe can slash


subsidies in exchange for minimum price guarantees. We need a line in


the sand which gives the farmer a safety net, a safety net income


guarantee for his produce and until this is in place, we are not going


to win the battle with the large supermarkets. Thisser too big and


too powerful when they face against individual family farmers. We do


need this line in the sand and that line in the sand, we think, needs


to come from Brussels. Any solution to the big problems


with farming here rests with the EU. Reform to subsidised farming is


pending as nearly everyone agrees the current system is unsustainable.


It is the nature of the system that we live in where we want to support


farmers, to make them have viable businesses and also to keep the


price of food down. That's why we do it. But we now have, we have got


to the situation where the agriculture budget is half of the


total EU budget. A massive amount of money and and because of the


financial situation we are in there is pressure to produce that budget.


And in changing times, there will be those who get left behind.


farming industry is so vital to the many of our rural communities that


its survival is crucial, but that cannot let us be distracted from


the fact that in its current guise many of the farms are not viable.


Farming of tomorrow will not look like the farming of yesterday.


That reality is sinkinging in. The mood in the countryside appears to


be one of resignation, that for many their way of life no longer


seems viable. Sean McCauley, bleaches not enough is being done


by our politicians. The Admiral Turner mrtion at -- the


administration at Stormont could do more. The big question is are we


going to let agriculture go? Our agricultural colleges are full of


students at the moment, highest grades needed to get into them. Are


we we going to have an industry fit for purpose when they qualify?


People don't realise the pressure that some people are under.


Those trying to support farming communities have noticed a rise in


calls for help. Farmers are under a lot of pressure


at the moment, not only the weather situation, but financial


difficulties, issues around debt, mental health issues are also a


significant problem. We need to remember that the agricultural food


sector in Northern Ireland is vital to the Northern Ireland economy and


we need to provide support to farmers and to people involved in


the industry to ensure that it continues.


Stormont has created a Strategy Board to help develop the


agricultural food sector at home while promoting it abroad. The


Minister for Agriculture was in China last week in search of new


export opportunities. However, this Strategy Board has stated that it


will not address the vexed question of pricing. The main issue for many


farmers. Pricing and those issues are in the mix. They are all being


discussed and everything is on the table.


But pricing isn't discussed because you have said it is beyond your


remit? It is beyond my my remit m is there any way they can drive out


the costs we have? We have to look at those things and then farmers


will be producing in the most efficient manner which they can.


Others see real change on the horizon.


Many farms will close. We need to learn the lessons of those that


closed and look at those in existence and ask what changes


maybe required and that may mean mergers of farms. Co-operatives


forming. The financial difficulties in the


countryside are at at odds with the expectation and hope for the


agricultural food sector. How it can grow and develop when farmers


are clearly facing the most difficult of circumstances is a


mystery to many. At Ray Elkin's farm, the TB test


proved negative. His farm will remain open over the


coming winter months. Like many, he is determined to hold on, come what


may. When I met Ray, he wasn't going to do anything else. That was


him. He never wanted to do anything else. He had other opportunities


when he was younger, but he wanted to be a farmer and that was that. I


would say there is still people like that. We hope that we will


carry on. But what will the industry look


like in the next few years? One phrase I kept hearing was that


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