Deep in Northern Ireland’s County Armagh, on a farm tucked into the impossibly green hills and orchards, Philip Toner is feeding his cows.
“This is my life,” he says, walking into the main cow shed, greeted by moos. “I’ve been working this dairy farm for 28 years. My children grew up on it, and now we run it together. My family has actually farmed this land since back in the mid-1800s.”
Toner is 50, lanky and welcoming, with reading glasses perpetually propped on his silver hair. He points to the original 19th-century farmhouse, where his oldest son now lives.
“There’s a lot of history here,” he says. “I would hate to see that something as ludicrous as a no-deal Brexit could put a stop to what we do here.”
British lawmakers are fighting Prime Minister Boris Johnson to prevent a no-deal Brexit, which would mean that the United Kingdom – which Northern Ireland is part of – would crash out of the European Union without an agreement on the terms of their divorce.
Northern Irish farmers who have built lucrative cross-border trade with the Irish Republic are especially worried.
“God forbid that ever happens again,” Toner says. “In Northern Ireland, we don’t need any more polarization of the views that we already have.”
Dairy industry depends on open borders
Thirty-five percent of Northern Irish milk is sold to Ireland.
The Toners sell milk from their cows to a processor that’s partly owned by a company based in the Republic of Ireland. The milk is turned into mozzarella and sold to the U.K. and EU.
Right now, the Irish border is open. That means it’s easy to transport milk – or “lift it,” as Toner says.
“A tanker could be lifting a farmer’s milk in the north. He then drives 300 meters to the next farm, who’s in the south along the same road,” he says. “He then drives another half mile or a mile to lift a third farmer’s milk, who’s possibly back in the north.”
Checkpoints for customs would make this easy trade impossible. Tariffs would make British milk — including that from Northern Ireland — expensive to buyers in the rest of the EU, including the Republic of Ireland. EU rules would prevent mixing milk from the north and south. Northern Ireland would be left with a glut of milk.
“Where do we go with over 2 million liters of milk per day that Northern Ireland simply couldn’t process?” Toner says, exasperated. “It would have to be dumped? And farmers can’t produce something just to dump it.”
The only Plan B, he says, is “sell now, cull all your cows.”