EU migrant labour down 26% in NI since Brexit vote
Several agri-food business leaders have written to the prime minister Theresa May to highlight concerns about the availability of labour in NI.

The number of migrant workers in Northern Ireland (NI) from countries within the EU’s Single Market has fallen by 26% since the Brexit referendum in June 2016.

Leaders from 21 business organisations in NI, including several from the agri-food industry, have written to prime minister Theresa May to highlight their concerns about the availability of labour.

Uncertainty

“A combination of exchange rate movements and the uncertainty facing migrants to the UK, has meant that fewer EEA workers are coming to Northern Ireland and more are leaving,” the letter reads.

Signatories of the letter include Ulster Farmers’ Union president Ivor Ferguson, NI Meat Exporters’ Association chief executive Conall Donnelly, NI Food and Drink Association chair Brian Irwin and NI Grain Trade Association chief executive Robin Irvine.

The first signatory listed is Confederation of British Industry (NI) chair and Fane Valley chief executive Trevor Lockhart.

NI solutions

The letter states that with a tight labour market in NI, there is a risk that companies operating on both sides of the Irish border will switch their focus to facilities in the Republic of Ireland.

The letter states that local industries have continually raised concerns over the past 12 months

The business organisations have asked the prime minister that solutions to the problem have NI flexibility to reflect differences in lower average regional salaries in NI compared with the rest of the UK.

The letter states that local industries have continually raised concerns with both the migration advisory committee and the UK government for the past 12 months.

“At no stage in the last year, have we received any indication that here has been serious consideration given to the solutions required to address our concerns,” the business organisations said.

“We are appealing for your support to deliver solutions to this worsening problem,” the letter to Theresa May reads.

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NI dairy farms make progress in clearing debt
Danske Bank is expecting debt levels on Northern Ireland dairy farms to continue to reduce.

Dairy farms in Northern Ireland (NI) have continued to make progress in repaying debt, Danske Bank’s head of agribusiness Rodney Brown has said.

Speaking to reporters in Belfast on Thursday, Brown said that the recovery in milk prices over the past two years has allowed some dairy farmers to clear debts completely.

“There are still a few that struggle, but those numbers are in their tens rather than anything else,” he said.

“If fundamentally it’s a good business behind it and it's properly managed, we will work with them with restructuring. If the fundamentals of the business aren’t right, tinkering around the edges will not address the issues,” Brown said.

Borrowed sector

Dairying is the most borrowed sector in NI farming.

Extended overdrafts and interest-only loan repayments were required by many in the sector when milk prices were on the floor.

The most recent figures from DAERA show that the average debt on borrowed dairy farms in NI stood at £109,515 in 2016/17.

“We would expect the trend to be definitely down this year… The expectation is that debt will be further reduced as we go forward,” Brown maintained.

Volatility

During his presentation, Brown said that extra cash available this year is allowing dairy farmers to catch up on investments that were sidelined when finances were tight.

However, he warned that volatility will continue to be a factor in the future.

“It’s about managing your debt, paying it down whenever the cash is there,” Brown told reporters.

Borrowings in other sectors are significantly lower than dairying and 43% of all farms in NI were carrying no debt at all during 2016/17.

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Egerton runner-up in BGS final
Fermanagh suckler farmer, John Egerton, has finished runner up in the grassland farmer of the year competition run by the British Grassland Society.

Fermanagh beef and sheep farmer John Egerton has finished runner-up in the British Grassland Society’s (BGS) grassland farm of the year competition.

Having been awarded the grassland farmer of the year title from the Ulster Grassland Society back in January, John was put forward as the sole representative from NI.

Out of the 11 farmers entered in the final, the judges whittled the applicants down to the final three farms, with John up against dairy farmers from England and Wales. The three finalists received a visit from the judging panel in August.

The eventual winner was Richard Rogers from Angelsey, who milks 350 cows on 90ha in a spring-calving system.

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Dairy commodities facing price pressure
Dairy markets remain under pressure, which has seen a fall in the latest milk price indicator.

The latest milk price indicator (MPI) from the Ulster Farmers Union has fallen 0.58p to 27.99p/l. Allowing for a deduction of approximately 2p/l to cover a processor margin and transport costs, it would bring the MPI closer to an approximate farmgate price of 26p/l.

The reduced MPI is reflective of the latest downward trend in dairy commodities markets with the GDT and Dutch Dairy Board auctions facing price pressure.

This week’s GDT auction recorded a small price index drop of 0.3% to US $2,885/t. It is the fifth auction in a row to record a negative outcome. The index price has fallen by 15% since June.

Allowing for exchange rates, the latest index would convert to a milk price of approximately 28p/l before processing costs.

While butter rose 2.4% and skim milk powder was unchanged, whole milk powder and cheddar prices fell.

Industry analysts point to increased production levels in Europe, and a strong start to the production year in New Zealand, as being key factors in reducing the demand for dairy commodities.

Meanwhile, the council of EU agricultural ministers announced earlier this week that there will be no fixed price intervention scheme for skim milk powder during 2019.

Intervention had been set at €1,698/t and last used in 2017 as a method of removing a surplus of milk powder from the market. However, there is little appetite from the EU for another intervention scheme.

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