Food can transform rural communities

I read with considerable interest the comments of Kevin Sheridan, chair of the Taste Council of Ireland and co-owner of Sheridan’s Cheesemongers in Dublin, at the council’s recent summer school. He remarked that specialty food producers, along with family farms and fishing communities, offer” a real and sustainable future for Ireland’s rural communities”.

Sheridan added that “the rich natural resources of Ireland’s lands and sea, together with our people’s ingenuity and creativity, are the perfect mix for a thriving food based rural economy”.
Interestingly, his comments coincided with an important Mintel Artisan Food Ireland 2016 report on the industry showing that these companies already contribute more than £600 million to the Irish economy and projecting that the sector will grow by around 10 per cent by 2021.

I am convinced that there are significant opportunities to grow the speciality sector here in terms of greater business especially in neighbouring markets such as Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland.
Year of Food and Drink has enabled us to showcase the contribution being made by speciality food and drink companies to the wider Northern Ireland economy and especially to rural communities which are seeking to ensure a sustainable future. I’ve seen impressive smaller businesses with smart ideas and innovative products at agricultural shows, food fairs, and other community events across Northern Ireland.

And what Year of Food and Drink is also encouraging is a greater engagement between these businesses and the predominately rural communities in which they are located. Connecting producers with local communities, as well as with consumers in the Greater Belfast region, to a much greater extent than ever before was one of the key objectives of Year of Food and Drink. I think it’s fair to say that this has largely been achieved. We will build on this next year and in years to come.
Food is now seen as a key driver of faster economic growth. It is, after all, our biggest and most successful manufacturing industry and one with substantial growth potential in terms of its contribution to local communities in boosting employment opportunities and overall economic wellbeing. It is market-focused and innovation-led because speciality companies, in particular, are well aware of the need to set themselves apart in fast moving markets.

The strong connection between food and tourism, another growth industry, is now well recognised especially by Tourism NI and Tourism Ireland. Tourism NI, of course, has embraced the industry and is driving Year of Food and Drink here and in international terms with tremendous enthusiasm and great creativity.
Year of Food and Drink has brought food and tourism together very effectively and this collaboration is providing greater opportunities throughout Northern Ireland and particularly in rural communities. Much of our food and drink production, both large and small scale, is carried out in these communities. It’s their business. Their future. And, of course, our future.

I believe that our rural areas are becoming more dynamic, thriving, prosperous and harmonious communities by being encouraged and supported to develop and supply the safe and wholesome food and drink consumers here and abroad increasingly demand. We have something special here in Northern Ireland in terms of the burgeoning quality food and drink that we are now able to provide.