Almost 50 people are quitting farming in Northern Ireland every week as low prices and red tape undermine the viability of many farm businesses.
The exodus is revealed in the latest June census results, which show that 2200 people left on-farm employment in the past 12 months and some 550 farms ceased to operate altogether.
The survey also underlines the general contraction of Northern Ireland farming, with significant declines seen in the area of crops grown and the number of livestock kept (see table)
“Forty-two people per week have left our industry in the past year,” said Ulster Farmers’ Union president Campbell Tweed.
“It seems the burden of low prices and bureaucracy is taking a heavy toll on the industry.”
Mr Tweed is especially critical of the role played by supermarkets and the “glaring gap” between farmgate and checkout prices.
New figures released by the UFU show that, while supermarkets collect 1.38 for a 2.5kg bag of potatoes, farmers get just 22p.
Similarly, a two-litre carton of milk earns the supermarket 1, while the farmer gets just 38p, and 1kg of lamb chops fetches 10.69, compared with the 2 that is returned to the farmer.
The inevitable consequence of this price squeeze will be a shortage of domestic food, warns Northern Ireland Agricultural Producers’ Association development officer Jim Carmichael.
“If supermarkets want high-quality, local food, they must realise there is a cost involved.”
Mr Carmichael also warns that the downturn revealed in the 2005 June census could be a sign of things to come.
“Farmers have not got used to the fact subsidies are now decoupled from production.
When they do, many will decide it makes little sense to carry on.”
He also believes many farmers will find it hard to justify the investment required by the impending nitrates action programme, prompting them to downsize their enterprises or get out altogether.