Farmers must meet the challenges in agri-food

Published: 29 Nov 2012 13:350 comments

The standards of agricultural efficiency must be raised if Northern Ireland farmers are to meet the challenges ahead, according to a leading agri-food expert.

Sammy Bell, William Bell Tractors; David Hassard, Hassard & McClememts; Conor MacMahon, Bank Of Ireland and Jennifer Hawkes, Omagh Show Chairperson at the conference.

Michael Bell, Executive Director of the Northern Ireland Food and Drink Association, has told representatives of the agri-food industry in Fermanagh, that while the top 20 per cent of farmers were doing well, the bottom 20 per cent were struggling.

He says the way ahead is to stop selling farmgate products as commodities and to add value to them. For example instead of selling milk as milk, it should be turned into a nutritious sports supplement where it would command a much higher price.

He said the Province had a very valuable agri-food industry but south of the border, Bord Bia, responsible for food promotion across the world, had a staff of 83 people.

With the CAP Reform proposals well underway, he said the public were constantly talking about the high cost of food and the subsidies to farmers. But he calculated that the CAP cost UK citiziens just £20 per head per year. If the CAP was abolished, food prices would rise by around 10 per cent. In real terms, with a family shopping basket costing £100 or more per week, that would make a substantial rise each year.

"People are getting a good deal," he maintained.

Mr. Bell was one of the keynote speakers at an agri-food event organised by the Bank of Ireland at Enniskillen Campus on Friday, attended by farmers, representatives of farming organisations, financial companies and food processors.

In his address, Mr. Bell referred to various organisations such as Farm Share, which helps with redistributing food back to charities instead of going to landfill. His organisation also backed cutting taxes on fuel which led to higher food prices.

He said Northern Ireland farmers and growers were world class food producers yet they don't realise it or talk it up.

For every job in the food and drink industry it creates two more jobs elsewhere in the chain. And he said jobs in agri-food were virtually permanent jobs.

One area which he highlighted needing attention was planning for future development. It was too slow in Northern Ireland, when compared with other parts of the UK.

He also highlighted the maze of labels on food and said the industry needed to sort it out.

Northern Ireland exports 80 per cent of everything he produces but not much outside the EU when compared with the Republic of Ireland.

For the future, Mr. Bell, reckons they can create 15,000 jobs by 2020 but they were being outpaced by the Republic of Ireland and Scotland. The Republic exports in comparison to NI 4:1.

The challenge is also compounded by the area of land taken up for bioethanol production. A major bioethanol plant at Hull buys up feed wheat in a 100-mile radius, meaning less available for feeding people and livestock.

However he pointed to one positive move, the establishment of the Agri-Food Strategy Board.

Joining Mr. Bell on the platform was Michael Liddle, General Manager of Western Brand, which runs the former Ferne Foods chicken processing plant outside Lisnaskea.

Western Brand was established in 1952 in Ballyhaunis, Co. Mayo. The Ferne Foods business was started in 1992 and Western Brand took it over in 2006. The company started a hatchery in 2009 to supply live birds to producers. Technology is key to their operation with a robotic portioning process in place.

The company has a throughput of 400,000 chickens a week and in the Lisnaskea factory, chicken pieces are coated and cooked ready for sale. The company is now looking at the Dutch market for exports.

During questions afterwards, speakers emphasised how the UK "goldplated" directives and interpreting everything that comes from Europe too strongly.

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