Farmers Deserve Funding Support For Their Superb Contribution To ‘Feed the Nation’ Campaign

What a challenging time it’s been for the food, grocery and hospitality sectors over the past month. And it looks inevitable that further challenges face us over the weeks and monthsahead.

There are worrying signs too that farming is now facing severe difficulties from a combination of factors including falling beef and milk prices, a situation exacerbated by some supermarkets importing minced beef from Poland. Urgent funding from Government is essential to ensure the survival of many farms here. I know that Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots is aware of the looming threat and is keen to do whatever he can to help.

We’ve seen the food industry here rising to ‘Feed the Nation’ and the bigger processors in particular offering hundreds of job opportunities at a time when unemployment is rising sharply and the local economy under greater threat than at any time since the 2008 recession. It’s our fervent hope that the companies will be able to retain as many of those additional jobs as practicable.

Our member companies, including processors and smaller retailers and delis, are certainly doing their utmost to assist people here, especially the elderly and vulnerable. I commend their responsiveness and enterprise. Bigger processors are focusing on specific products demanded by the community such as mince and chicken breast fillets.

Artisan and smaller enterprises and retailers have responded quickly to the needs of people staying at home by introducing delivery services that can be accessed by phone and over the internet. And it may well be that these companies will decide to continue to provide the personalised services they’ve launched after the virus has gone.

In Food NI, we have been active in doing whatever we can to help the industry by pressing retailers to source as much as possible from local suppliers and, especially, to create opportunities for artisan and smaller producers to help plug gaps on their shelves.

In another important support initiative, we set up an extensive list of our companies now offering customers, especially the elderly and vulnerable, doorstep delivery services paid for by card, thereby avoiding any breach of social distancing requirements. And many of our members are now offering deliveries of a broad range of products. I’ve also been immensely encouraged by smaller companies offering to include products from other businesses in the food they are delivering.

They have been quick to address the critical threat of a collapse in cash flow arising in particular from the closure offarmers’ markets. Our hope is that these will return but only when it’s safe for them to do so.

We have included information about support measures including grants and loans from the UK Government and the Northern Ireland Executive to combat Covid-19 on our website.

We’ve been active in the drive to help safeguard smaller businesses and the self-employed firms which have fallen in the cracks between the various schemes and urged banks to provide support.

Another important issue we are addressing is the problem companies are now experienced in terms of access to support from decisions on industrial de-rating in the past.

There’s an extensive Covid-19 section on our website that’s packed with essential information for companies and smaller retailers about the virus and support readily available to enable them survive the outbreak.

Our companies, furthermore, have continued to pursue opportunities for their produce in Britain and the Republic of Ireland. We’ve promoted a number of recent successes….and hope to showcase further successes in the months.

What is also apparent is that our industry is changing and likely to continue to do so. Companies are doing business differently, especially in how they interface with customers.

And the retail environment is also being reshaped by shoppers who now appear to be appreciating the commitment of smaller stores, store groups and delis to their local communities. Processors previously focused on foodservice are seeking to rebalance their business by exploring retail.

It’s hard to predict, at this stage, how these and other changes currently underway will pan out beyond the virus. Food NI will proactively support and promote the industry in whatever lies ahead.