Farm innovators ‘glow’ in sunrise industry

Article written by Michele Shirlow featured in the Farm Week 10/11/2016

A key feature of the agri-food industry here its increasing commitment to innovation especially in terms of new product development. I’ve seen – and enjoyed – so many new products at Year of Food and Drink events, especially country markets, that have been held across Northern Ireland over the past year.

Our farms, as this newspaper has chronicled over the past decade in the reports from Ian Harvey, have long been a source of great innovation in sectors such as mechanical engineering, food and drink, retailing, hospitality, environmental schemes and tourism facilities. I believe that he has covered some 700 innovations in farms across the country.michele

The newspaper, in addition, has provided the only regular coverage of smaller food and drink enterprises here over many years. So many of the most adventurous and ambitious smaller food and drink firms began life as farm diversification projects in which farming families have invested time and other resources, taken risks, to create new businesses.

A number of our larger food companies, furthermore, are still firmly rooted in farming, the most notable being farmers’ co-operatives such as United/Dale Farm, Fane Valley, and LacPatrick/Ballyrashane. Fane Valley’s Linden Foods is at the forefront of new products for premium retailers such as Marks and Spencer. Mash Direct, now a UK leader in convenience foods, is based on the family farm and last week win the prestigious UK Manufacturing Excellence Award – a tremendous achievement. Cloughbane Farm Foods in Pomeroy has also collected a string of awards for quality and innovation.

Other major companies including Moy Park are still closely linked to farms across Northern Ireland and are pioneering exciting new products for retail multiples. These companies are also creating rewarding careers for young people in disciplines ranging from strategic marketing to IT and engineering.

It’s clear to me that the agri-food industry here has long punched above its weight and in so many areas. Agri-food is very definitely a sunrise industry, one with immense potential in both short and long terms, and not the sunset sector that some in positions of responsibility seem to think.

Innovation, of course, is recognised as being vital to enhancing economic growth, offering benefits for investing companies such improved productivity, greater efficiency and enhanced responsiveness to customer needs. Coming up with original products and processes can deliver faster turnaround times, increased value-added through improved products and greater customer exposure through enhanced marketing.

Opportunities presented by the ever-expanding global marketplace, the main theme of those who support the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, only exist if the industry is ready, willing and able to exploit them. This also demands enhanced marketing activities and greater support for smaller firms in particular. What will happen to EU-backed R&D and innovation programmes post-Brexit is uncertain. Clarification is needed as soon as practicable about the UK Treasury’s approach to such important funding for our most important manufacturing industry.

It is essential then that we continue to invest in imaginative thinking within companies, both large and small and across all sectors. Key innovation support bodies such as CAFRE, AFBI and university centres of excellence must have access to funding for novel thinking and new products being developed by companies here.

Our food and drink industry is capable of producing the quality products with taste and provenance and responding to the demands of an ever-changing marketplace, especially the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland, both of which will remain crucially important post-Brexit.