Newly-elected Ulster Farmers' Union deputy president William Irvine told members the UK is "facing a wartime food challenge" at the organisation's Annual General Meeting today (July 25).

The Co. Armagh dairy farmer joins re-elected deputy president David Brown and newly-elected president Victor Chestnutt on the union's top team.

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It was a close race, with three candidates 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).

Irvine, who is from Mountnorris, Co. Armagh, farms in partnership with his wife Ruth and son David.

His farming career began in 1976 after he completed the NCA course at Enniskillen Agricultural College.

"I returned home to work alongside my father, where we set about changing our farm from a suckler beef and
cereal enterprise to a dairy enterprise," he said.

"During my younger days, I was active in the Young Farmers’ Clubs of Ulster (YFCU), serving as Mountnorris' club treasurer, club leader and county treasurer. Later, I served for 10 years as club president and currently, I am a vice-president and a trustee."

Irvine has been a member of the UFU for most of his working life, and in recent years has held the positions of group chairman and county chairman.

He has also recently completed a three-year term as the union's Dairy Committee chairman.

He also currently represents Northern Ireland dairy farmers in Brussels on the COPA Milk Working Group and represent the UK on the Milk Civil Dialogue Group.

"It has been a real privilege for me to have represented our union in these roles and to have been involved in the internal workings of the UFU," he said.

"This experience has confirmed my long-held belief that our union has a vital role to play in representing NI farmers and promoting our industry."

‘The UK Is De Facto Facing A Wartime Food Challenge’

During the hustings, Irvine highlighted that the UK only produces around half the food its population 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.”