Bright future for agri-food sector

Comber spud field 1 Richard Halleron looks at the bright prospects ahead for the sector and sums up industry leaders’ perspectives, including on the importance of research and customer relationships.

‘Looking to the future of the food industry’ was the overarching theme addressed by the speakers contributing to the panel discussion at the recent agendaNi agriculture and food conference. And while there was total agreement that everything should be done to improve sectoral efficiency levels within Northern Ireland, repeated reference was also made to the need for strong working relationships between the food industries north and south.

“We operate very much on an all-island basis,” stressed Food NI Chairman John Best, “and this must be reflected in the way we go about developing the food sector throughout the island moving forward.”

Wilson’s Country Chairman Angus Wilson agreed: “As a business, we supply retail outlets throughout Ireland and work with growers accordingly. There is a tremendously strong future for the food industry in this part of the world. But securing it is all about bringing innovation and new thinking to bear.

“Yes, businesses will have to invest in their own futures but government support must also be forthcoming. The end result will be a more sustainable farming sector and the creation of more jobs at processing and packing level. And this is a pretty good news story for the economy as a whole.”

Dr Trevor Gilliland, who heads up the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute facility at Hillsborough, confirmed that continuing research will be required so as to ensure that farmers can secure higher levels of efficiency within their businesses.

“Our farmers are now competing on a truly global stage,” he said. “There will be opportunities to grow our farming and food sectors in the future. The world’s population is set to increase by 50 per cent over the next two decades. And in countries like China, the growing wealth of the middle classes will ensure a growing demand for Western foods, particularly those with a dairy and red meat focus. But these markets can only be availed of if farmers in Northern Ireland can produce high quality food in the most efficient way possible.”

Peter Hannan, MD of Hannan Meats, told the conference that consumers wanted taste, combined in a food offering that guaranteed traceability and sustainability for everyone involved in the production and processing chain.

“We only buy meat that is reared as close to our operations as possible and support local farmers and producers. This means that we support our local community through employment and skills training,” he said.

“Provenance means putting animal welfare to the fore and supporting local farmers. It also means making quality control paramount and ensuring the very highest standards of meat. So our focus on provenance is our customers’ degree guarantee of quality.

“We have a deep respect for the animals we purchase and the meat they produce. So we select only the best local beef, lamb, pork and poultry that the island of Ireland has to offer. This approach to business has worked for Hannan Meats. And I see no reason why other food businesses cannot put their own perspective on the challenge of providing consumers with high quality food on a consistent basis.”

SME focus

041214WC1_135 Mash Direct Director Lance Hamilton told conference delegates that small-to medium-sized businesses are at the very heart of Northern Ireland’s food economy.

“And the Executive at Stormont must continue to recognise this fact,” he explained. “At Mash Direct, we are totally committed to delivering convenience, provenance and taste. We live in a world where families often have multiple wage earners, leaving less time for food preparation. The ‘five-a-day’ principle has driven a move towards healthier prepared options and this has developed a niche for healthy convenience food.

“The real core of the success of Mash Direct is the passion and dedication of the staff at every level: production, administration, technical, product development, marketing and management. The result is a company which is able to meet its customers’ demands whether large or small. We respond to consumer trends as well as delivering the personal touch, without compromise, to the quality of the product.”

Brian Irwin, Executive Chairman of Irwin’s Bakery, told the conference that Northern Ireland’s food sector had a good story to tell.

“And we can build on this for the future,” he explained. “The adoption of new thinking and a commitment to greater levels of innovation will be the factors that drive the industry forward. In our own case, bread is no longer regarded as a staple commodity. We have responded to this by adding value both from a consumer and a company point of view.”

ASDA Corporate Affairs Manager Joe McDonald confirmed to the conference that the multiple retailer is committed to sourcing as many home-produced food products as possible.

“We are working with over 100 local food companies courtesy of our procurement programme,” he remarked. “This is also structured to help suppliers reduce their costs and become more efficient in their operations. Asda is also committed to everyday low prices for our customers, which is particularly important in the current economic climate. Research has shown that families in Northern Ireland, typically, have significantly less disposable income than the UK average.”

Challenges

The panel discussion also highlighted a number of the challenges confronting the agri-food sector at the present time. One of these is ensuring that the industry, particularly at primary producer level, has access to the additional funding it will need to cope with the increasingly pronounced downward cycles of international markets, which are now more inherently volatile than was the case even five years ago.

Bank of Ireland’s agri-food sector manager William Thompson picked up on this point from the floor of the conference.

“The next six months will be particularly difficult for the dairy sector,” he commented. “All the banks are aware of this. And in our own case we will be working closely with clients to ensure they get the support they need during the first half of 2015. We would also ask our clients to get in touch with us as early as possible, if they feel that they are running into cash flow problems.”

But it’s not all bad news. Agriculture Minister Michelle O’Neill has committed to have this year’s single farm payments distributed as quickly as possible. This will help boost farm finances throughout Northern Ireland.

Angus Wilson pointed out that while exports account for 85 per cent of all the food produced in Northern Ireland, the home market must not be overlooked.

“We must never take the loyalty of local consumers for granted,” he said. “Potatoes are a case in point. Consumers can source other sources of starch in their diet. So there is a requirement on the part of local packers to actively promote the quality of the produce they are bringing to the marketplace.

“Spuds are not just spuds. There are a host of different varieties, which consumers can now choose from. They each offer a unique taste experience but it’s up to the sector to communicate these key points to the public at large. No-one else will do this for us.”

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