22 October 1999

Strong £still saps

Ulster confidence…

Northern Ireland is dependent on a thriving export market

so the past three years have proved particularly difficult

for its producers. Isabel Davies reports on the problems

facing farmers in the province

THE continuing strength of sterling remains central to the problems of farmers in Northern Ireland and is sapping confidence in the future of the industry, according to president of the Ulster Farmers Union, Will Taylor.

The province has been particularly hard hit by both the downturn in profitability and the beef export ban because prior to 1995 about two-thirds of agricultural output was sold abroad.

According to Mr Taylor, farm incomes will probably have dropped by a further 15% this year. This drop comes on top of a 75% drop in incomes over the past two years. "Its going to be worse this year," he added.

Hill and upland producers are expected to show the biggest falls, prompting fears that there could be a mass exodus of farmers from hill areas.

"There is a real prospect of a significant move away from the hills," warned Mr Taylor, citing high production costs, the ongoing impact of the BSE crisis and the strength of sterling as the key factors. Two-thirds of Northern Ireland lies within an LFA.

Money going out

The union estimates that in the past three years more than £572m has gone out of the rural economy because of the downturn in the fortunes of the industry. This has meant less buying power in local communities and forced many rural businesses to close or downsize. The result according to Mr Taylor is a distinct lack of confidence pervading through all sectors.

Although Mr Taylor welcomed the governments attempts to help farmers by reducing the burden of red tape he thought that more had to be done.

"We cannot be kidded that solving the production cost situation gets us onto a level playing field.

"The industry needs a more tangible commitment than merely an investigation into production costs," he said.

Government should give a clear undertaking on the agrimoney situation, independently monitor retailers – to make sure they source local produce – and back producer partnerships and co-operation, he urged.

NI FARMING FACTS

&#8226 The farm sector is more important in Northern Ireland than in virtually any other part of the United Kingdom.

&#8226 Only 6% of the provinces 1.18m ha (2.91 million acres) agricultural area is actually cropped. Land quality and climate combine to ensure that grass dominates the landscape. It also supports over 0.6m cows and 2.9m sheep and just over 0.5m pigs.

&#8226 Two thirds of NI lies within a less favoured area (LFA).

&#8226 The regions 27,500 holdings support 29,800ha (73,635 acres) of spring barley and 7,600ha (18,780 acres) of potatoes.

&#8226 The province relies on its ability to export. Up to 1995, around two-thirds of agricultural output was sold outside Northern Ireland.