New Year message from UFU President Ivor Ferguson

Saturday, 29 December, 2018

It is a long time since the farming industry looked into a new year that will bring so many major changes.  However, wherever those changes lead, we must find ways to ensure they create new opportunities for farming families.  Looking back, 2018 was the year the Ulster Farmers’ Union celebrated a centenary of delivering for its members.  As ever, it was a year of mixed fortunes.  The extremes of weather affected many farms.  Incomes were more reasonable for some sectors but arable, beef, and sheep still struggle with profitability.  Farmers who work hard and produce such a high quality product deserve better. The New Year needs to bring more certainty for these farmers.

We hope politicians will find a Brexit deal that will allow us to trade not only with the rest of the UK, our biggest market, but also with the member states of what will be the EU-27.  The UFU has always made clear that what we want is free and frictionless trade.  Farmers have consistently said a 'no deal' outcome would be unacceptable for the future of farming.  We are uncomfortable when we are drawn into mainstream politics, but that is inescapable when the future of our farming industry is on the negotiating table.  Regardless of politics, we will continue to do our best to ensure a successful future for the industry.

While our direct agriculture support policy will remain largely unchanged for 2019, and depending on our future trading relationship with our main markets, we do have a once in a life time opportunity to create a policy that ensures we have a productive, profitable, and progressive farming industry. Northern Ireland’s future agriculture policy must support active farm businesses to be productive, sustainable, while delivering public goods. The government must allow as much time as possible for transition to the new policy. Farmers will need time to adapt their businesses. Also, flexibility for the different UK regions within a common policy framework is key. Our local policy must suit our needs. We are also supportive of the ability to pilot new practical support measures during this period which could be subsequently rolled out more widely.

Our main focus remains the future of our family farms - how we remain viable and how we can maintain a profitable family business for the next generation.  I want to encourage all our farmers, especially young farmers, to take a more active role in the UFU.  Young farmers are our future; they have great ideas and their input to the UFU at all levels is valued.  We are a non-political farming organisation making our own decisions for the benefit of all Northern Ireland farmers.  This is something of which we are very proud and it reflects the views of those who created the UFU in 1918.  

We represent all farmers regardless of size or sector.  We speak for farming families and rural communities and have a right to be heeded by policy makers.  Our groups play an important role in the social life of rural communities.  We recognise the reality of mental health problems in farming and the fact that these are not helped by isolation and failure to share problems.  As a forum to debate issues and talk about farming we can help counter that problem.  Sharing problems is how they are best put into a fresh perspective.

We are currently dealing with too many issues to list here.  As our post-Brexit relationships develop new issues will emerge that have not yet even been thought about.  We are up for that challenge.  We see ourselves as a key part of the bigger agrifood industry, and by working together we increase our influence with politicians and policy makers.  That benefits all our members.

I believe we have a lot to be optimistic about, with GB still our main market.  Retailers and consumers continue to support our high-quality safe to eat, traceable food.  In a time of uncertainty demand for high quality food will continue and grow.  It is essential that farmers receive a realistic reward for what they do – not only in producing food, but for the environment and the countryside.  We carry out our role as custodians of the countryside effectively and enthusiastically. 

The UFU has a dedicated staff team at our headquarters in Belfast and I am confident members recognise their commitment to securing the best possible outcomes for farming families.  Our 25 group offices across Northern Ireland meet our members every day.  Our presidential team, committees and executive are all made up of farmers who know first hand, through their own everyday experience, the challenges of farming while facing big changes.  As the presidential team, Victor, David and I wish you all a happy, healthy, safe and successful farming year in 2019.