‘I think I’ll survive a border with the European Union’
Robert Moore’s farm in Co Derry is a quarter of a mile from Donegal
Robert Moore at his farm at Balloughry on the northern side of the Derry/Donegal border. Photograph: Trevor McBride
“I survived 25 years of the Troubles living here, I think I’ll survive a border with the European Union.”
These days, when asked if he’s worried about a hard Border, farmer Robert Moore has his answer ready.
An arable and beef farmer, he and his family have been farming their land at Ballougry in Co Derry for more than 200 years.
The road out to the farm, on the west bank of the Foyle, follows the path of the river as it flows inland towards Donegal; the farmhouse itself is only a quarter of a mile from the Border.
A “moderate unionist” who voted for the SDLP in the last UK general election, Moore voted Leave in the Brexit Referendum.
Eighteen months on, he remains convinced that leaving the European Union is the best decision for farmers.
“Leaving gives us the opportunity to get away from subsidies,” he says.
“It gives the freedom to develop a new agricultural policy, which we can’t do while we’re within the EU.
“What we want to do is develop a sustainable agricultural policy where the industry can stand on its own two feet.”
In 2016, the total income from farming in Northern Ireland, according to the department of agriculture’s figures, was £244 million. The income from direct subsidies in the same period was £276 million.
The same report put average farm business income at £14,788 in 2015/17, which is expected to rise to £18,943 in 2016/17.
“The problem with subsidies is it makes agriculture look inwards,” says Moore.
“I don’t want to farm for subsidies, I want to farm for the price of the beef and the potatoes and the cereals that I produce.”
Among the crops grown by Moore is millet oats.
“The minimum price for what I produce is £152 a ton, but if you go in and buy them in their basic form in the supermarket they’re £1,530 a ton, that’s for a 1.5 kilo bag.
“If you take the oats out and put them into little sachets and put them into a little box that’s easy to open you can sell them for £6,300 a ton.
“All I need out of that £1,530 is 2 per cent. 2 per cent gives me three tons to the acre, and that would replace my single farm payment so I can live without subsidy.”
If efficiencies were made in the industry, Moore argues, farmers could earn a sustainable wage without the need for price rises.
“I spoke to a meat buyer for a supermarket last week, and she made a comment that consumers are not tolerant to price rises.
“I thought, well they’re tolerant to price rises in energy, because they don’t have a choice.
“But I don’t believe food prices necessarily have to rise. We’re wasting £10 million tons of food in the UK every year, which is worth an estimated £17 billion.
“If you could save 60 per cent of that £17 billion through a more integrated supply chain, that would enable farmers to make a standard living.
“You wouldn’t make a fortune, but you wouldn’t lose a fortune either.”
He says Michael Gove is a pretty high-profile agriculture minister and the message farmers are getting from him is that he wants ideas, but not the same ideas.
“Forget the policy we’ve been operating on, which is primarily EU-driven, and come up with something that is sustainable.”
At lunchtime, Moore comes in from the farm and listens to the latest news on the Brexit negotiations.
Is he optimistic?
“I’m cautious. We can get this right, or we can get this wrong.
“My view is simple – do a free trade deal, and the EU have said they’re up for that. The £50billion so-called ‘divorce’ payment from the UK to the EU “doesn’t surprise me in the slightest”, he says.
“I’ve always said there was going to be something like that. You can’t leave a club and then expect to get back in totally free of charge.
“I think the free trade deal is the next step, because if it doesn’t happen, where will Germany sell all their BMWs and Audis they’re selling to the UK at the moment, or what about all the French wine? And what about the jobs that are dependent on that?”
He says it is an opportunity.
“The UK is the second largest net contributor so they need our money, and if there’s no deal they’re actually worse off than we are.
“That’s why I think there will be a deal, because everybody needs it,” he says.
“Teresa May’s always been talking about a special deal, a bespoke deal for the UK and the EU, so if they’ve sorted out the money, which they appear to have done, the next step has to be the free trade deal.”
Among those “next steps” is the issue of the Border. Moore does business on both sides of the border but points out that “in farming, there isn’t actually a totally free Border at the moment”.
His pure-bred cattle are bought in Donegal and must go through a process of testing, certification and fees before he can bring them into his farm in Derry.
“There will be an administrative system, but that doesn’t mean boots on the ground up at the Border.
“Negotiate a separate agreement. There are all sorts of examples, between the EU and Norway, or Switzerland, or Turkey.
“There’s no way there’s going to be a hard Border, or could be, because why would you put something in place that you can’t enforce?
“The only way you could have a hard Border would be to have something like North and South Korea, or build a Donald Trump wall, but that’s not going to happen.”
During the Troubles the road out to Moore’s farm, and the one above it, were closed.
“There were three main access points from this side of the river into town, and all the little roads were blocked off, but even then there was nothing to stop anybody walking over the fields and handing somebody something over a hedge or a fence, or just walking across the Border.”
He is reluctant to say any more. “It wasn’t nice. It’s all in the past, the Troubles were not nice here, particularly in the 1970s – we were under considerable threat and we were not the only ones.”
“We were lucky actually, because this is a much quieter border than Armagh or parts of Tyrone, and there are a decent bunch of people living in Donegal on the whole, so it was a much quieter Border and people worked much more closely together and it was much more integrated.
“I take some optimism from that. If you think back, who would ever have thought that Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness would go into government together?
“I’m actually far more concerned about our political situation in Northern Ireland than I am about the EU.”