If there is a central theme to my writing on the Irish farming and food sectors it is that the country needs a far clearer vision about how it is going to create a premium-foods segment. It needs to link the traditional Irish family farm to issues-aware, premium-paying consumer. It is a segment that has to move on from being micro-scale to offering farmers new, real and sustainable routes to market.
To keep one’s feet on the ground one does need to recognize that selling premium-foods will only be, for the foreseeable future, a small share of Ireland’s agri-foods sector. Its island location has dictated that Irish farming has evolved to be a lower supply-chain link in chains that sell commodities into distant markets. But can these supply-chains now return a farm-gate price that makes smaller-scale, farming sustainable? Modern food distribution means that Ireland is now close to many major consumer markets and it is now time to develop the products and routes to market to supply them.
This will be far from an instant solution to family-farming incomes shortfalls as a long transitional phase will be required. And even then commodity production will remain the choice of many who prefer to choose scale rather than value. It will, rightfully be their choice but, equally, others need the choice to invest into a premium-products supply chain.
The choice is there today but is it being adequately supported by the government and its agri-foods policy? It may be in words but they are words that are not really supported by the tangible funding actions required to stimulate the premium product sector to grow in a way that would make it a powerful part of the farming and rural economy.
Rarely a day goes a day go by when one is not reading about funds that are being distributed to the agricultural sector. And all too frequently one is left questioning whether the funds will improve the lot of the family farm. Yes, they will provide another [usually] small income stream but where is the mentality that says give someone a fish and you will feed them for a day, give them a fishing rod and you will feed them for life. It is often distributing funds like confetti at a wedding. Will they genuinely enhance the ability of family farms to survive into the long-term?
So what kind of [additional] funding is required if we are to provide smaller-scale family farms with much-needed, new routes to market?
To start with one often reads about ‘innovation’ and one would think that innovation is good. It can be but it can also lead to one stepping onto the technological treadmill [think hamster in a wheel]. The question to ask is does the technology provide a unique selling point and for just how long will the USP be sustained before someone else copies or improves upon your ‘advance’. Further innovation is then required [and the hamster runs around its wheel faster].
Maybe it is better, in these days of ‘retro’ to be thinking about how to create products with USP’s that are linked to location and specific farming practices that are not easy to replicate. It is not by chance that many premium food products are wrapped up in protected designated origin status and a regulatory framework that almost excludes innovation [albeit one can expect some wiggle room to improve farming practices at the same time]. Innovating in a fashion to avoid further innovation is an interesting idea and one that may avoid joining the hamster upon its wheel. It is about innovating with the aim to create unique-selling-points and then protecting the USP’s into the long-term.
And one should remember that innovation is not all about adopting the latest technology and it is certainly not limited to the products created within a foods laboratory or emanating from a factory environment. It can mean so much more and that includes finding way to bring back the value-added of food products inside the farm gate and to within the local community.
So should we be funding innovation in terms of product development; albeit in terms of the products being artisan, small-volume and locally or on-farm produced? Should we be funding changes to farming systems [including changing breeds and species of livestock] that result in raw materials for products that have USP’s that can be protected under a local then an international origin-protection scheme? This is all innovative. It may also be innovation that uses technology that creates jobs as opposed to replacing them with capital investments. It can all be very retro.
This may be about producing products locally and using more artisan methods but it is still needs capital expenditure. So just what is available to small food businesses? Invest tens of millions and you will probably get help but most micro and small foods businesses need only tens of thousands. There is a need for small grants and grants that are not too bureaucratic and complicated to access. And we need grant aid for investments that create dairy, meat, vegetable and fruit-based products that go from lightly processed to significantly transformed. The eligible list should be extensive.
To go further, we can support farmers and local producer groups to identify products and to learn how to create them. We can support investment in milk, meat, vegetable and fruit processing. We should help such groups to identify their unique selling points, to create the basis of a designated origin scheme for their products and to envelop the products in strong marketing story. There is simply no point in being innovative in a way that is easily repeatable way by others; that way leads the hamster’s wheel, albeit after a short-term sojourn into premium markets.
And finally we need to support projects that reconnect the farmer and/or local foods producer and/or producer group with the premium-paying consumer. For this, will the oligopolistic supermarket system work? In some cases, and usually further down the line, it may. But how many small producers will really want to be involved in the corporate food world? Just how many will want to see the retail price eroded by what can be a high-cost retailing system that leaves little to the guy at the bottom?
Hence, we need alternatives. We need retail outlets that can provide regular sales and income streams for the small producer. We need a diversity of sales outlets from farm shops, to local butchers [who carry a wider range of local produce] and we need permanent producer retail outlets in major cities and towns. Maybe we need to see multi-stall food emporiums that are about food culture, cafes, food retail and a tourism destination. All can serve the purpose of reconnecting the farmer and local foods producer to the consumer. And we should not forget to put the physical distribution linkages in place.
The above is about local and we should not forget that Ireland is a food exporting nation and it has to be. Hence, we need the sales and logistics capability to take a new-found wealth of food products to international consumers. It is yet another piece in the jigsaw but it is one that will be needed. And how is that going to come about if, as with the rest, we do not channel grant aid into creating, producing and marketing premium Irish food products and all that goes with it? And if we measure grant effectiveness in terms of their potential impact upon family-farm incomes and food-linked rural employment, they might just be cheap at the price.