Hard-hitting investigations. Brian Hollywood investigates the crisis facing Northern Ireland's farmers.
Browse content similar to Farming in Crisis. Check below for episodes and series from the same categories and more!
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