The Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU) has made great play of the fact that it wants to be part of a UK-wide response to the Brexit challenge.
But the hierarchy of the organisation may wish to change this policy fundamentally, given the recent utterances of the NFU (England and Wales) President Meurig Raymond. In essence, the Welsh dairy farmer has said that the principle of direct payments can be jettisoned, post-Brexit, if certain circumstances prevail. His exact words were the following.
“If the Government secures a free trading arrangement with the EU, ensures UK farmers are not disadvantaged by future trade deals outside the EU, and ensures the industry’s labour needs are met, then we can consider an ambitious new policy – one that is designed specifically for our domestic farming sector, involving a wide range of measures which focus on productive, resilient, sustainable and profitable farm businesses.
If we get a bad deal for farming, then measures to manage volatility – such as direct payments – will remain vital to help farm businesses compete in an uncertain world.
Many farmers in Northern Ireland will view this commentary by the NFU President as an act of capitulation. And this has come before the actual negotiations on how UK agriculture will be supported in future has even started.
The reality is that the basic payment is the support mechanism which keeps agriculture in Northern Ireland viable. In a good year, it represents the actual profit which the farming sector makes. But in a bad year – and there have been many of these over recent times – it is the injection of funds that keeps thousands of farming businesses afloat.
Yes, the mandarins in Whitehall are already briefing to the effect that the direct support budget for farming will be reduced post-Brexit. Government suggesting such a measure is one thing. But for the UK’s leading farm lobby group to acquiesce on the principle, before any negotiation has taken place, is something else entirely.
Analysis indicates that Northern Ireland’s dairy farming sector could survive a drop-off in direct support levels. But the beef and sheep industries would be decimated under such circumstances. And this is a reality which the hierarchy within the UFU should be very mindful of, as they liaise with their counterparts in England and Wales over the coming weeks.