Conference delivers upbeat perspective

Agrifood seminar A positive attitude prevailed at agendaNi’s agri-food seminar but delegates also saw the need for better prices to underpin growth and the urgent recruitment of young people into the industry.

Delegates attending the recent agendaNi agri-food seminar came away from the event in no doubt that Northern Ireland’s farming and food sectors may well be on the cusp of a golden era. This growth will be driven by an increased demand for high quality food in countries such as China. Underpinning all of this will be the envisaged 50 per cent growth in the world’s population, which will take effect over the next thirty years. Moreover, the growth in the economies of both Asia and Africa will ensure that consumers in these regions will have the financial wherewithal to buy the food they require.

In contrast to Europe and North America, many of the world’s other economies have been enjoying sustained growth over the past number of years. Attending delegates were informed that approximately 10 million Chinese people are joining the ranks of the middle classes each year. In tandem with these increasing wealth levels, consumers in that country will also seek to increase the levels of high quality animal protein in their diets thereby increasing global demand for dairy, poultry, beef, lamb and beef products. These envisaged trends will benefit Northern Ireland’s agri-food sectors, both directly and indirectly.

The seminar took place against the backdrop of the recently published report from the Agri-Food Strategy Board, entitled ‘Going for Growth’ which envisages a 50 per cent increase in local agri-food output between now and 2020. The board was established by Farm Minister Michelle O’Neill and her Enterprise Minister colleague Arlene Foster. The board’s recommendations will be assessed by the Stormont Executive, as a whole, over the coming months.

So are the Northern Ireland agri-food sectors up for the challenge that will see the entire industry increase its annual turnover from the current figure of just over £4 billion to £7 billion by 2020? Seminar chairman Richard Halleron (pictured) felt confident that it would meet this target with some ease. He commented: “Farming in Northern Ireland has a number of unique natural advantages, chief among them being its ability to grow grass effectively. This, in turn, reflects positively on the prospects for the dairy, beef and lamb industries to secure sustainable growth well into the future.

“But it is the example that has been set by the pig and poultry sectors over the past three decades that gives me total

re-assurance regarding the farming and food industry’s ability to secure the tremendous opportunities for profitable growth that will materialise over the coming years.”

Halleron continued: “If one looks at the fundamental economic drivers impacting on both of the intensive livestock industries, it would be easy to conclude that they should not exist at all today in Northern Ireland, never mind have some form of vibrant future to look forward to.

“Imported feed accounts for 90 per cent plus of the input costs incurred by pig and poultry farmers. Both sets of producers operate in one of the most expensive business environments In Europe. The high cost of electricity is a case a point. Moreover, both sectors export 85 per cent of the produce they bring to market, which means coping with the high cost of transporting their goods across the Irish Sea.”

He added: “Yet, despite all of these obstacles both sectors continue to play a key role at the very heart of the local agri-food industry. Moy Park, for example, is currently generating an annual turnover of £1 billion while the pig sector, after a number of challenging years, is starting to expand once again.

“All of this success has been achieved on the back of a total commitment by pig and poultry producers to drive forward efficiency levels within their businesses. They are, in fact, top of their class within Europe when assessed on this basis. So if this blueprint were to be super-imposed on the business models followed by the grass-based industries, then the sky is the limit in terms of what the Northern Ireland food industry as a whole can achieve over the coming years.”

Providing farmers and food processing businesses with the finance they will require to grow their businesses over the coming years was an issue that came up repeatedly throughout the seminar. Bank of Ireland’s William Thompson, who attended the event, pointed out that his organisation has committed in excess of £60 million of additional finance to Northern Ireland’s farming industry over the past two years.

“We recently doubled our agri lending budget from the initial figure of £50 million sterling up to £100 million sterling, in line with the demand that has been demonstrated by the agri-food industry right across Northern Ireland,” he further explained.

“The economics for agriculture as a whole are on the up and the prospects look generally positive for the coming months. Certainly, where milk is concerned, feed prices have come back while farm-gate returns show every sign of remaining buoyant well into the new year.”

First Trust Bank’s Eoin Donnelly, also in attendance, was equally upbeat regarding the prospects for agriculture: “We recognise the tremendous prospects for growth within the farming and food industries over the coming years. First Trust has made funds available to allow farmers grow their business both through land acquisition and the securing of improved efficiency levels.”

Prices

A key theme identified by both speakers and delegates attending the seminar was that of delivering sustainable prices at farm-gate level on an ongoing basis.

Richard Halleron again: “The primary producer constitutes the foundation stone on which the entire agri-food industry is built. If farmers are forced out of business, because of poor commodity prices, then the aspirations of the food processing sector to grow between now and 2020 will be completely dashed.”

Encouraging the brightest and best of our young people into the farming and food industry was also recognised by all in attendance as a key requirement moving forward. The average farmer age in Northern Ireland is currently 58. Essentially, this means that an entire generation of young people have turned their back on farming as a career.

While recognising that the agricultural colleges are now oversubscribed, in terms of student uptake across a wide range of subject areas, a word of caution was sounded by a number of delegates to the effect that career building opportunities within farming and its ancillary sectors must be found for as many of these people as possible.

And the same principle was espoused for the food processing sector. Here the requirement will be for highly trained people with strong backgrounds in pure science, food technology and marketing.

“Traditionally, the food sector may not have been regarded as a trendy sector to work in,” Richard Halleron concluded. “It’s up to local food companies to change this image, and quickly. The clock is ticking regarding the implementation of the ‘Going for Growth’ strategy. Obviously, the farming and food sectors will both have a key role to play within all of this. But so does the Executive at Stormont.

“To date, the mood music from the politicians regarding the work carried out by the Agri-Food Strategy Board has been extremely positive. But it’s now time to convert all of this rhetoric into support measures that really will allow farming and food to capitalise fully on the opportunities that will certainly present themselves over the coming years.”

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