The message to Government is much the same today as back 100 years ago when the Ulster Farmer’s Union was first founded, president Barclay Bell told the farming organisation’s centenary gala.

Recounting the union’s beginnings following the first world war as the country sleepwalked into the “hungry thirties”, Bell said that the group’s former presidents had been lucky if they had only to deal with one crisis over their terms.

‘Darkest hour’

“Looking at the period from 1918 through until 1938, these were particularly tough times with the inter-war depression and the ‘hungry thirties’,” he said.

“In 1933, it was reported at our annual general meeting that it was the darkest hour in the experience of farmers for a generation.

“In a Ministry of Agriculture report, average weekly earnings were nine shillings and nine pence – not even 50 pence per week – and strangely as it is, this is such a topical issue currently.

‘Back our farmers’

“In March 1934, 1,300 farmers packed into the Wellington Hall in Belfast to protest against the imports of cheap food.

What emerged from that meeting rings loud and clear today: ‘Back our Farming Industry; we can produce the food this country needs. This is an industry which provides huge employment’.

War effort

Bell added that during the difficult years of the Second World War the union was “instrumental” in encouraging farmers to up production.

He said, in times of need, farmers could consistently be relied on to provide for the nation and needed to be backed by the Government and public in return.

“When I started to read the history of our union in the first 70 years, one fact was evident,” he said. “There have been food scarcities – there were times when imported food wasn’t available.

So who did the Government turn to? There was only one place to go – to our farmers; who have, who are and who will continue to deliver on food security.

“To our Prime Minister, to our Government: Do not hang our farmers out to dry in any quick-fix trade deals – our households need food on their tables. Food is a public good.”

Notable guests at the event included Stan Phillips, Counsellor for Agriculture Affairs at the US Embassy in London; Denis McMahon, the new permanent secretary for the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs; Dan Lawton, US Consul General in Belfast; as well as the presidents of the National Farmers’ Union (NFU), NFU Scotland, NFU Cymru, and the Irish Farmers’ Association.