Live updates: UFU ‘drive-in’ AGM kicks off at Balmoral Park today

It might be more commonly associated with Northern Ireland’s flagship agricultural show – the Balmoral Show – but today (July 25), Balmoral Park is home to a different agricultural spectacle.

Members of the Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU) have got together in droves for a ‘drive-in’ version of their Annual General Meeting (AGM) – something they hope will both be a first and a last for the organisation.

Spaced 2m apart members will be asked to remain in their cars at all times, while speeches will be made from a stage at the front and broadcast over large screens and speakers.

Outgoing president Ivor Ferguson said it was good to see so much interest in the AGM, explaining that attendance was up on previous years.

“We have had 111 people register to attend today but we have seen even more come along,” Ferguson told AgriLand.

In his opening remarks, Ferguson told members, he not only welcomed those physically in front of him but also tuning in online, where council members will also be able to take part in the day’s proceedings.

It’s understood that between online and on-site around 180 council members are taking part today.

New president elected

Victor Chestnutt has been elected as the new president after being proposed by all six UFU county committees.

On the day, he was proposed by outgoing president Ivor Ferguson. Chestnutt will hold the position for a two-year term and will also sit on the UK Government’s new Trade and Agriculture Commission.

Members also voted on the organisation’s new deputy president. Three candidates are running for two positions:

  • Incumbent vice president David Brown (from Florencecourt, Co. Fermanagh);
  • Former Hill Farming Committee chairman Ian Buchanan (from Dungiven, Co. Londonderry); and
  • Former Dairy Committee chairman William Irvine (from Markethill, Co. Armagh).

As part of the hustings, each candidate has 10 minutes to make a speech. Votes were counted during speeches by Northern Ireland Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots and Agriculture Committee chairman Declan McAleer.

Also Read: New deputy president tells members 'we're facing a wartime food challenge'

David Brown was re-elected for a further two-year term with William Irvine elected as the new addition to the union’s presidential team.

Hustings

David Brown said his two years as deputy president had brought many challenges.

“We’ve had the Brexit rollercoaster, we’ve had environmental issues, and of course, in recent months, sadly, we have had this coronavirus pandemic,” he told members.

“In terms of household income, the UK food market is among the cheapest in the world. Less than 10% of our household income is spent on food, compared to just over 30% just 50 years ago.

“Recent months throughout this pandemic have highlighted that domestic food supply is important.”

Brown also highlighted the 25% drop in suckler cow numbers over the last two decades – “Numbers are down from 344,000 cows to 255,000 cows – indicative of the lack of profitability in that sector and in the sheep sector,” he said.

There are things we can change, there are things we can’t change, and I suppose it’s important to know the difference.

“There is a quote I love from Henry Ford, that great car maker, ‘Whether you think you can or whether you think you can’t, you are right.’ In order words, it’s your attitude and how you approach an issue which influences the outcome.”

‘Sustaining the industry as it is is not good enough’

Ian Buchanan told members he had the experience necessary to represent them. The Dungiven man has previously chaired British Wool as well as the union’s Hill Farming Committee.

“We should be totally inclusive, inviting and attractive to all farming families,” he told members.

In many ways, the operation of the union is like a good marriage – you need trust and understanding, coupled with openness and understanding.

“Our industry has always faced challenges and will continue to do so in the future – currently the biggest one is the post-Brexit trading standards that we will have.

“Farmer-bashing has become a favourite past-time for many in wider society over this past couple of years. The Covid-19 pandemic has, I believe, created a new appreciation of farmers amongst the British public. Our challenge is how we maintain this goodwill.

For the past 75 years, our government has had a cheap food policy. It’s very unlikely that we are ever going to change that policy, and therefore, we have always got to keep thinking cleverly.

“Looking to the future, I say it’s not good enough to say ‘we need to sustain our industry’. Just look at last year’s Total Income From Farming, which more or less matched the direct payments we received,” he said.

“Without direct payments, all of us collectivity involved in Northern Ireland Agriculture Plc. will have made no profit despite having invested billions and supporting a large percentage of our population in employment.

Sustaining the industry as it is currently is not good enough, we simply have to do better.

‘The UK is de facto facing a wartime food challenge’

William Irvine highlighted that the UK only produces around half of the food it needs and said the challenges facing the agri-food supply chain were on par with those of a wartime food challenge.

“My view is that today’s challenges are right up there with the toughest of those from the past,” Irvine said.

“Currently, we are in the middle of a world pandemic and by the end of this year, for better or for worse, we will have left the EU which for better or for worse, will bring in a new era for UK agriculture.

We have a unique opportunity to take a hard look at where agriculture is in the wider scheme of things and to influence and shape our future for the better.

“Thanks to our climate and our industry here in Northern Ireland, we produce significantly more produce than our consumers need but when we look at the UK as a whole we only produce 50% of the food that’s needed.

Citing Prof. Tim Lang, Irvine said, “Although not officially at war, the UK is de facto facing a wartime food challenge. We are, he says, in serious trouble.

“We have access to a greater range of ingredients at better prices than at any time in history, we have a massively fragile just-in-time food supply chain, which could easily collapse and a depleted agriculture sector… and that leaves us at the mercies of the international markets.

A big part of the problem is the ‘Leave it to Tesco’ approach – that is to let just eight companies to control our agri-food supply… so that primary producers get the smallest slice of the cake – just 5-6% of the price the consumer pays for the food. The reality is farmers need double that to be sustainable…

“We as an industry need a price for our produce that reflects the true cost of production. A price that reflects the knowledge, skill and the 24-7 commitment that every farmer brings to the job.

“A price that allows us to invest in our businesses to embrace new technology, and crucially, a price that allows us to bring the next generation into our businesses.”

Stay tuned to AgriLand for the latest updates from throughout the day.