Posted on Wednesday 19 June 2019 by Ulster Business
It’s a crucial part of the economy and one of the toughest industries in NI. Ulster Business sat down with experts in the field of farming and agri-business for the latest in a series of Ulster Bank DSE dinners to examine the lay of the land
Like other industries which have had to deal with a challenging post-recession economy, changing markets and political upheaval, farming and agri-business is no different.
But, as one of the key components and drivers of the Northern Ireland economy – spanning the generations – it’s embracing technology, modernisation and forward-thinking to tackle the challenges it faces head on.
A host of top industry experts gathered for the latest Ulster Bank DSE dinner in Belfast to have a frank and honest discussion about the state of the industry, those taking a modern approach to the sector, and the changes it faces in the coming months and years.
Farming has its own unique set of challenges to deal with, along with those faced by the majority of sectors here. That includes weather and overall volatility in the market. Agriculture and food processing accounts for around 20% of Northern Ireland’s exports, employs around 100,000 people with a sector turnover of £4.4bn.
Cost of set up remains a tricky one for food producers here, at all stages of the cycle – from new farming set ups, through to processing and sales.
Looking at the performance of farming, as a whole, in the last year, it’s been filled with ups and downs. And while overall incomes fell in 2018, those gathered heard how it was a ‘game of farms’ – with sectors such as eggs seeing an uplift of more than 7%, while the value of crops, such as potatoes, fell by more than 20%.
Looking ahead, and with Brexit around the corner, 2019 is likely to bring a fresh set of hurdles, but hurdles which can be jumped over if there’s enough suitable planning ahead. That could include new tariffs on food, trading delays and essentially establishing new rules for the game, once the UK is outside the EU.
But for the agri-sector here, Northern Ireland’s emergence as a top global food destination is helping to further bolster and support the industry – putting the region on the map for a range of products, and entering the zeitgeist.
That includes Peter Hannan’s salt-aged beef, which has walked away with a haul of three stars at the Great Taste awards, while Rooney Fish in Kilkeel has become the first Northern Ireland winner of the Supreme Champion title in the Blas na hEireann – the Irish National Food Awards.
Just a few years ago, the Food NI Pavilion at the Balmoral Show – which took place between May 15 – 18 at the Eikon Exhibition Centre – struggled to attract a sufficient number of top end food producers. Now, it boasts a selection of some of the best products the UK, Ireland and beyond has to offer, and has recently had the chance to showcase at London’s food-centric Borough Market.
The difficulties faced by the sector include the challenges of developing the next generation of farmers, as many family multi-generational farms are finding the young crop aren’t necessarily interested in following in the footsteps of their parents.
However, organisations such as the Young Farmers Clubs of Ulster – currently headed by Zita McNaugher – is ensuring that the younger generation gets its say in the future of agri here in Northern Ireland.
And for those farmers wishing to retire, or pass their business on, the Land Mobility Scheme offers them that chance. The discussion at Ulster Bank heard of a case whereby one farmer wished to retire, and a second wanted to expand – with the farms essentially sitting just across the road from each other.
Those wishing to diversify and expand their own farming business can also look for bank support in order to finance the development, as well as utilising the technologies and advancements available to them.
Ulster Bank’s own Entrepreneur Accelerator is already proving a success, and stretching its reach across the sectors, and into agri-business – including working with newly established comparison site Farm Compare.
It’s also outpacing the environment generally, when it comes to the progression of female entrepreneurs. Around 53% of those who have been through the accelerator so far, have been female.
Those gathered at the dinner heard while 2019 will be tough year, key areas must be tackled head on to ensure the industry prospers. That includes driving efficiencies and modernisation, something which forward-thinking companies such as Farm Compare and SlurryKat – both from Co Armagh – are trying to do.
The former is a price comparison website which helps farmers source the best deal for a raft of areas, including machinery, livestock handling and feeding.
There were also calls to help streamline and improve the processes associated with farming, and other agri-business. That includes increasing the level of digitisation and automation with the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, as well as speeding up the planning process so farmers can develop and expand quicker, and working closer with the Government to overcome challenges.