Ulster Farmers’ Union president Ian Marshall is demanding the immediate appointment of a supermarket ombudsman with the responsibility to investigate the buying policies of EU food retailers.

He made the call, courtesy of his address to the Union’s Co Antrim President’s Area meeting, held earlier this week.

“We hear what EU agriculture commissioner Phil Hogan is saying about the imbalance that currently exists within Europe’s farming and food supply chain.

“Farmers must get a bigger slice of the retail cake. And one way of ensuring this happens is for Brussels to appoint a supermarket ombudsman with real enforcement powers.

“And we need action on this matter now.”

Marshall acknowledged that the debt burden on farmers had risen dramatically over the past 12 months.

“Fundamentally farmers need to secure better prices for their produce.

But the banks must also review their lending practises, where agriculture is concerned.

“The interest rates confronting farmers at the present time are ridiculously high. And there is an element of discrimination coming into play here.

“If young couples are granted mortgages at the present time, the interest rate levels which they are expected to pay back are trivial, compared to the charges levied on farm debt.

“Farmers need access to cheaper money. The European Investment Bank may well be an option in this regard. But Farm Minister Michelle O’Neill must act to make this a reality.”

Marshall confirmed that a Union deputation will be meeting Michelle O’Neill over the coming days.

“The issue of securing cheaper finance for agriculture is one of the issues up for discussion,” he said.

“We will also be calling on the minster to introduce the £250m capital grant scheme, promised under the new rural development programme, as a matter of priority.

“But we want this done in a way that ensures farmers receive the full benefit of the funding that is available.

“We are very conscious that, in the past, suppliers have increased their prices on grant eligible items. This must not be allowed to happen in 2016.”