Creating awareness from ‘field to fork’

Article from the Ulster Grocer written by Michele Shirlow

How much food and drink from local producers do you include on your shelves? How much do you actively search out the expanding range of new products from local suppliers? How much do you know much about what’s being produced here? Are your shoppers interested in buying local? Do you ever visit local farmers’ markets in search of new food and drink ideas?

These are interesting questions to consider as we approach our first ever Year of Food and Drink in 2016. A key objective of this year-long celebration of locally produced food and drink is to boost sales of our food and drink and thereby assist the growth of those that grow the ingredients and process their output.

What we aim to do is to increase awareness among retailers, foodservice and, of course, shoppers of the outstanding taste and premium quality of what is being produced here. We now have a dynamic and increasingly innovative food and drink industry that includes artisan enterprises that have won international awards for taste and wholesomeness.

There is an immensely encouraging trend in the local market towards products with heritage and provenance and a desire among shoppers to get to know more about those producing the food and drink they purchase. This is clear from the remarkable growth in markets across Northern Ireland.

We now have a network of such markets, the best-known and most popular being the weekend events at St George’s Market in Belfast, the most successful indoor market in Britain. They recently held a twilight market which was a sell-out success.

Shopping in the historic market to the background music of a local band or singers is a real experience. It’s great fun and a tremendous opportunity to meet the producers of everything from home-baked breads and cakes to fruit, vegetables, confectionery and tea and coffee. Belfast City Council has a real treasure here and should consider making it easier for newcomers with bright ideas in food and drink to gain access. Over the past year we’ve also seen new farmers’ markets being launched successfully such as Folkstown, Newtownbreda and Comber and further afield.

There’s a message in this for conventional traders. Shoppers are becoming more interested in local food and drink and are especially keen to know about those making the products. Offering what shoppers want is the way to business success.

We hope that Year of Food and Drink, the schedule of events for which is being developed, will support the work currently underway to reshape the supply chain here. Bringing the supply chain closer together and improving understanding from ‘field to fork’ makes sense. It will enhance knowledge and understanding of the problems and requirements of each link in the chain.

Perhaps the biggest benefit would be to build trust between producers and retailers. If we are to see worthwhile benefits for all those involved and grow our industry faster and more profitably for all, there has to be more trust from everyone. It is my personal hope that Year of Food and Drink will help to promote greater trust throughout the supply chain.