Page last updated at 09:36 GMT, Monday, 28 December 2009

NI farmers face nervous banks and a strong euro

The attitude of nervous bank managers and the strength of the euro were major factors for Northern Ireland farmers in 2009, says BBC Northern Ireland agriculture correspondent Martin Cassidy in his review of the year.

Farmers queued overnight to get modernisation grants
Farmers queued overnight to get modernisation grants

The year began with some frosty fall-out from the credit crunch and a sharp increase in the cost of working capital which farmers rely on to buy seed, fertiliser and livestock.

The monetary policy committee may have ratcheted the base rate down to 0.5% but it soon became clear that the age of cheap credit had come to an end.

As they trooped in for their annual meeting with the local manager, farmers found the banks were focused on increasing margins and rebuilding their balance sheets.

But dairy farmers in particular were in no shape to shoulder higher lending charges as they faced up to a slump in milk prices.

And as milk prices tumbled, the Ulster Farmers Union warned that farmers were facing serious losses.

But all sectors of agriculture suffered a slump, and as the value of sterling fell compared to the euro, lamb producers - who rely on exports to France - saw a positive spring in farm gate prices.

Pig farmers too profited from the competitive edge which the fall in sterling afforded.

Only a few hundred pig producers may remain but those who survived years of hard times managed to bring home the bacon in 2009.

Climate change

A reduction in grain prices proved a double-edged sword, cutting returns for barley and wheat producers and leading to reduced feed prices for livestock and poultry farmers.

It was a year when climate change was a major talking point and a narrow spring planting window emphasised again just how reliant farmers are on the weather.

Another talking point, and even more frustrating for farmers, were the long queues which formed outside government offices for a share of £15m in modernisation grants.

Many farmers were disappointed and the European Commission questioned how its modernisation funds were being distributed.

Once again, the summer proved a disappointment and persistent rain forced some farmers to house their cattle.

Fermanagh Flooding

Michelle Gildernew visited those affected by the flooding
Michelle Gildernew visited those affected by the flooding

In the agricultural world in 2009, the Fermanagh floods in November will be most remembered.

Rising water levels caused traffic disruption in Enniskillen and many roads across the county were impassable.

Some of the worst floods were around Boho, where children had to be ferried to school, and near Lisnaskea where farms were left stranded and milk had to be poured away.

Agriculture Minister Michelle Gildernew took time out from a busy legislative programme to visit some of the worst affected areas in Fermanagh.

Back in the Assembly, the minister was steering through legislation on animal welfare, disease control in livestock and a new bill to make local forests more accessible.

If the year started badly for dairy farmers a sharp recovery in world markets meant farmers were in a much happier frame of mind for the winter fair at Balmoral in December.

There was an end of year bonus too, as the weakness of sterling boosted annual single farm payments.

The improved cash flow will help pay down debt and means some farmers may consider updating machinery and equipment.

In Europe, too, there were changes as the Lisbon treaty was finally passed into law and a new commission was lined up to take control in early 2010.

Many farmers will be sorry to say farewell to Mariann Fischer Boel and will be keen to get the measure of Dacian Ciolos, who will be the architect of another round of agricultural reform.



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