Success of recent events!

Among the many tremendous food festivals that I’ve taken food journalists to in recent months is the hugely successful Potato Festival at the Giant’s Causeway, a tremendous event that attracted thousands of visitors to the stunning venue.

The visitors learned about the quality and breadth of local artisan products such as dry cured Kennedy Bacon, as well as large businesses such as Old Bushmills Distillery. It was tremendously encouraging to see the historic distillery supporting the event, now in its third year and set to grow stronger in both the short and long term.

Over 6,500 visitors from all over Northern Ireland and tourists had an opportunity to sample local products and talk directly with the people who produce them here in Northern Ireland. They were also given tips from top chefs from The Causeway Hotel, The Bushmills Inn, Thyme and Co and Harrys Shack on how to create delicious dishes using readily available and premium quality local products.

What events like the Potato Festival provide is a face-to-face engagement between consumers and the producers of local food and to hear how they make it. They gathered around the stalls of Dromore’s Krazibaker to see how he makes traditional Irish griddle breads such as soda bread and potato farls and were fascinated by Will Abernethy of Abernethy Butter churning butter on site.

We’ve also seen this engagement work tremendously well at the Ulster Artisans’ shop at Belfast International Airport. This has enabled travellers to sample local produce and talk directly with the producers. It’s been a tremendous success.

And I commend the airport’s management on what should be tremendously beneficial for the burgeoning artisan sector in particular. I hope that the initiative, the only country market airside at any airport in the world, will be further developed in terms of participating companies and scope provided within the departures zone.

Community food festivals events will be part of a really exciting programme of activities designed to capture the imagination and support of local people during the forthcoming Year of Food and Drink 2016. Local food festivals, therefore, will be a crucially important element in the year ahead. Indeed, 2015 has been a great year for such festivals across Northern Ireland. Consumers are now supporting such events because they appreciate the quality of the food available at these markets.

This is how it should be because we want to engage the entire community in support what will be an immensely important initiative for food producers, including artisan enterprises, and for the farmers who provide the essential and high quality ingredients upon which our most important industry depends.

The boost in sales for local produce which, we all hope, should result from Year of Food and Drink 2016 should contribute significantly to the rural economy and increase awareness of the contribution made by our dedicated farmers.

Year of Food and Drink will provide as springboard to accelerate the growth of the agri-food industry which already contributes around £5 million to the local community. This provides tangible benefits to local communities especially in rural areas.

We’ve now got a distinctive Year of Food and Drink 2016 branding and identity that will feature at these and other food events from the start of next year. We want to see community groups using the logo to brand food and drink events in which they are involved.

Local food festivals will be important in spreading the message about Year of Food and Drink because of the engagement they encourage between smaller businesses and artisans and consumers increasingly seeking products that offer outstanding taste, safety, heritage and provenance.

The existing network of local community festivals will be part of a co-ordinated, comprehensive and exciting programme of activities for what will surely be a tremendously exciting and immensely positive 12-month period for producers including farmers.

So, do get involved and help ensure the success of Year of Food and Drink in 2016 to recognise the importance of our agri food industry the following year and for the longer term