Category Archives: Irish agri-food strategy

IS MINISTER GOVE GOING TO BREXIT BY THE GREEN DOOR?

This post first appeared online at http://www.thatsfarming.com on the 20th September 2017

Is a prerequisite for a politician to be able to balance one’s principles with the winning of votes? One wonders if Michael Gove is not showing himself to be particularly adroit on this front and he begins to fashion the UK’s exit from the Common Agricultural Policy?

My expectation is that the Minister will be an advocate of free trade that will facilitate UK access to low-cost foods from the Globe’s cheapest producers. There is, however, a strong political lobby demanding that food and environmental standards are maintained, even enhanced, after Brexit and the Minister appears to agree; he is going to attempt the impossible and to balance the two, apparently, widely differing objectives.

And where does one find those lobbying for British farmers in this Ministerial conundrum? There used to be a day when the Tory Party had a bulwark of MP’s from Shire farming families but, alas, no longer. That, and the political weight of a now small farming population means that farmers will have to accept what Brexit serves up for them; they are going to be policy takers, not policy makers.

UK farmers will need to protect their own market position by the continued adoption of food-safety, food-quality, environmental and animal-welfare standards. Red Tractor is well established but maybe it will have to go to Red Tractor Plus. There are other schemes relating to geographic origin and animal welfare but, that said, the UK lags Italy and France when it comes to quality-focused designated-origin schemes. That will change as UK farmers realize the full necessity of ratcheting up their standards and communicating the associated message to the consumer.

Trade agreements will allow easier access to UK markets but they will not mean a diminution of what is demanded by food processors and retailers to ensure that their due diligence is visibly in place. It is due diligence requirements, not legislation and regulation that will limit UK market access. Ireland with its QA and sustainability schemes meets the required due diligence standards, but so will the likes of NZ and Australia. They are not a barrier to entry to rely on into the long term.

Increasingly one’s expectation is that the lion’s share of farm support will shift from production-related support to rewarding farmers for delivering upon environmental and quality objectives. It will include transitory mechanisms that will encourage and facilitate change. Post-EU, British food and farming policy will emerge with a thoroughly green hue.

Just how will a Green-door Brexit impact upon Ireland’s farmers? They and their supply-chain partners will have a choice; either they compete in the UK market place on cost with global, also quality-assured suppliers or by raising their standards, be they environmental or quality, to focus on the upper echelons of the market. Will they join UK farmers in a race to the top?

That Irish farming can compete on cost is a grass-based myth. Certainly, a well-consolidated and well-invested agri-food processing sector may be able to compete with the global players, but can it truly do so in a long-term, sustainable way if the structure of the Irish family-farms that underpins it is unsuitable for the task of producing its low-cost raw materials? The danger for Irish farmers is that the processing sector will look elsewhere for its supplies, it is already doesn’t.

For Irish farmers, supplying the UK must be about matching, if not bettering, the food safety, food quality, environmental and animal welfare standards implemented within the UK post-Brexit.

Yes, the QA schemes have met supermarket demands and other schemes have met the demands of, for instance, the burger chains. Ireland now, nonetheless, needs to develop schemes that meet premium-paying consumer demand with the right consumer-facing products. They need to reach the market via supply-chains that ensure that the farm-gate price received by farmers is boosted as a reward for delivering what the market wants, be they in the UK or elsewhere. Irish farming policy must focus upon quality-enhancement. It is long overdue but with Brexit it must now happen.

The UK has an advantage in that Brexit will allow it to develop its own farming and food policy and to tailor it to meet its own Green-door objectives. As the UK is and will remain such an important market for the Irish farming industry, Ireland must follow. It will, however, be a challenge to determine how to offer support to facilitate the necessary changes and to create a level support playing field with the UK as it may not be a priority for a post-2020 CAP. Post-Brexit UK farming and food policy may be a revolution whereas, to be honest, one cannot expect more than a CAP evolution.

With Brexit, there remains so very much to think about.

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THE REWARDS MUST GO TO THE RIGHT PEOPLE

Storm Ophelia recently reminded people of how fragile our modern way of life is. Take away our electricity and gone is our entertainment; as batteries run dry our communications crumble; and even hot water for tea becomes scarce. Of course, many have faced real difficulties but too few will appreciate just how fraught it is to be faced with having to water, feed and milk farm animals.

Farming is a tough profession to follow, one that falls to those with a calling and a love of the land. But still one wonders, just why do farmers do it when the rewards nowadays offer meagre recompense for the farmer’s efforts?

My memories of farming go back to when I was three. I spent my summer days in the farm lorry carting grain or in the Landrover checking our International TD crawler drivers contract ploughing around the neighbourhood. They are remembered as halcyon days? As I now look back I appreciate that farmers were better rewarded then; it was an era when people knew who fed them during the Second War and then, post-war, ensured that they again became well-fed. How times have changed.

Later, the 80’s were about joining the 10-tonne club. It was a time when it was all about yields per hectare and per head. It was an era when farmers adopted technology with alacrity. It was about and adding yet more input so long as the extra yield outweighed the unit cost.

I noticed early in my farming career, courtesy of those same crawler drivers, that we had started to isolate our decision-making from the soils. They were becoming no more than a ‘growing medium’ as plant growth became all about chemistry and the feeding of crops with ‘artificials’. It was also about the time when the soil scientist became extinct. As with our domestic cookery, everything be it plant or animas was being fed out of a bag, can or bottle.

In the 90s as a farm business economist, I began to clearly see how more per hectare or head was causing a decline in the real price of agricultural commodities. It was about two percent per annum and it mirrored a similar increase in ‘productivity’; farmers were producing more and being paid less. They were being a little too successful at feeding a population, growing as it was.

As output prices fell, farmers produced yet more. They adopted more technology to do so. Farm incomes were in decline but it was the start of the happy times for those who supplied farm inputs.

At the other end of the supply chain, we were witnessing the rise of the supermarkets. Faced with abundance, the power was with their buyers. As early as 25 years ago we were warning farmers that they needed to become more market focused but, alas, they chose to grow yet more. It was easier to focus within one’s own farm gate and to leave the adding of value and the retailing to others. A few farmer-owned entities around Europe managed to hold their own but the 1990s and the Noughties saw farmers lose their power within the supply chains. The lucky farmers were those who had visionary representation and leadership but it was unfortunately all too rare.

As farming lost its influence within the food supply chain, it became noticeable that few outside of farming were interested in farming as an investment. Those in the finance world knew a long-term price decline when they saw it. Farming was the sunset industry as the dot-coms emerged. Property also offered far simpler, faster and greater returns.

It took the combination of a rare upturn in food prices combined with the global property price collapse in the late Noughties to change the City’s perception of agriculture. The finance world first, unfortunately, chose to dabble big time in sovereign bonds but they eventually cottoned on that food was the new gold, nobody was making any more land and the global population was going to grow ever greater.

Did these new investors in food production even understand ‘farming’ as they brought an over-simplified approach to the business. It was about acquiring land for its inevitable capital gain, using simple, near-to-mono-culture farming systems and parachuting in the knowledge required. The human resources needed were abundant, albeit that they might have to migrate, and, frankly, nobody needed much training; after all peasants are farmers so there cannot be much to it.

Hence, we are now at a point where little trading power lies with the family farm. It is about corporate profits before and after the farm gate and from ‘industrial agriculture’. The ‘family farmer’ has been reduced to be a minion to serve others; squeezed at either end and out-competed by the scale of ‘industrial agriculture’. It is becoming evident that the latter rarely pays the full cost of the resources it uses or for the externalities that it creates, but that is a story for another day.

Farmers have chased their tails for decades to provide an abundance and, consequentially, seen themselves become of little concern to an increasingly corpulent food consumer. And the consumers who do care where their food comes from have moved on to issues like food production’s environmental footprint. And one could even suggest that animal welfare is now of greater importance than the welfare of those who labour to produce our food.

Far from being appreciated for working through the toughest of conditions to feed an increasingly urban population, farmers are viewed as those who are destroying our environment. For years they have strove to produce more; albeit few of us ever appreciated the full extent of the externalities that would come with doing so. Mitigating them is now our greatest farming challenge. Just how many among our C21st population realize that without the farmers’ successes, they would still be spending a large proportion of their income on food? It was this that allowed the consumption boom, the growth in property markets and the rise in living standards. In contrast, the farmer who started off driving the band wagon, was relegated to the back seat and then thrown in the boot as others realized that there was money to be made from food; it was just not to reward the farmer.

For how much longer will we find volunteers to provide the farming cog for our food systems? Nowadays, others derive the rewards from what the farmer produces; albeit they still expect the farmer to provide so much of the supply-chain’s capital. The pressures on farming are such that the industry’s demographics are increasingly fragile. Can family farming, a model that has served us well for centuries, be fully replaced by a corporate-owned industrial agriculture that places profits first?

Will industrial agriculture ever even produce the required profits in marginal regions and where property ownership rebuffs its scaling up? Will businesses monitored by accountants, managed by executives and staffed by the less willing to deliver a resilient food system through thick and thin? Will it ever be dynamic and innovative enough to address the challenges ahead of us, not least when the industrialization of agriculture is at the core of many of the problems we face? I think not.

To lose family farming is to break the vital link between food production and the farmers love of the land, their animals and their way of life? Ultimately, the foundation of a resilient food system are resilient people who are willing to face up to whatever challenges are thrown at them; and there will be many, be they climatic or otherwise. Although we may be told that it is the agri-food industry that feeds the world, it does not, feeding the world will remain the bailiwick of the farming family which is connected to its own land. To think otherwise is folly.

CHERRY PICKING CAN YIELD A BITTER HARVEST

This post first appeared online at http://www.thatsfarming.com on the 23rd August 2017

When I started delving into the Irish agri-food industry, an early finding was a preference for focusing on partial farm-production costs. For some reason which, in my less cynical moments, I put down to an academic desire to compare one farm with another or one national industry with another, like with like, all the talk was about how low Ireland’s direct production costs were. Of course, if you wish to go around promoting the idea that Ireland is a World-leading, low-cost producer of milk, it is the go-to data, it provides some great rallying calls and media copy.

Thankfully, but very belatedly, there is now some effort being made to disseminate more in-depth economic data on the costs of production by including an imputed cost for the farmer’s own labour; hitherto something that was left out of the equation, presumably because every farm is different, or so we like to think. Sadly, the partial cost approach did not just exclude family labour, the major labour source in Ireland, it also ignored the costs of land and capital for the same reason.

It is not as if full-costings had not been done. Farm business survey work is routine across the EU and, in Ireland, sporadic surveys are done into the international competitiveness of Ireland’s dairy farming. In a nut shell, the latter highlight that Ireland has low direct costs per litre of milk but also that this advantage was negated when all labour, land and capital costs were factored in. It is only when farms are significantly above average size, that Irish dairy farms are internationally competitive, all costs considered. My own calculations concur with this.

So, were those promoting an expansionist agenda for the dairy sector guilty of cherry picking their data sources? Or was it just the desire to be positive and promote a best in the world image? That is a judgement that I will leave to others as I, as a blow-in, could not possibly comment.

What prompted me to return to my partial costing hobby horse was the recent highlighting of dairy-sector labour shortages. I have read about the pilot scheme to incentive the unemployed to milk cows and proposals that the Government should provide milking visas to non-EU nationals and create a Sunday-off relief-milking scheme to lessen the work load. I am still awaiting to hear that convicted criminals will be sentenced to years of hard milking.

It is, of course, not a subject to jest about as milking every day, usually twice a day, is a tough way to make a living. It is relentless and farmers need to be able to take a break from the milking routine. To do so means incurring relief milking costs and they are costs come higher at weekends when, not atypically, the second [or primary] income earner in the farm household gets time away from work. This a just one reason why labour planning is such an essential part of farm business planning. It is no less vital to understanding your industry than the variable costs of growing grass.

A few of my farming correspondents have, rightfully, pointed the finger at the pivotal problem, the farm economics. It has been exacerbated recently by a low milk price. Nonetheless, the question is, when is the labour shortage going to be resolved in the only way it truly can be, by farmers being able to afford to reward people with an attractive enough payment to incentivise them to want to milk cows? Is it going to happen at 30cpl, at 35cpl or maybe at 40cpl?

The tragedy in this is that potential labour issues should have been analysed and factored in before rapid post-quota expansion was mooted as the way forward for the dairy industry. Likewise, for land and capital. I would also add to that list demand and supply-side market analysis but that is a story for another day. Full, in-depth analysis would almost certainly have contradicted the we are globally-competitive, low-cost milk producer mantra and brought into question the headlong rush to follow the New Zealand model, be it in milk production, milk processing or market focus. Full-cost economic analysis would have shown that the farm-scale differential would mean that following New Zealand’s approach would not create a sustainable Irish milk-production sector.

One likes to be positive, but finding sustainable solutions for the Ireland’s dairy sector labour shortage is going to be difficult. It is because the problem goes beyond finding the willing and able; it is about having invested magnificently in targeting markets that are unlikely to yield the farm-gate milk price that will make the economics of milk good enough to pay sufficient money to attract the needed staff. It is one hell of a conundrum. And as with so much with the way farming is evolving these days, the consequences will fall hard on the farmer. And that would, probably, never have happened if there had not been so much data cherry-picking in the first place.

 

IT IS TIME TO RECOGNIZE THE ISSUES FACING FARMING

This post first appeared online at http://www.thatsfarming.com on the 20th June 2017

So, parts of the Irish farming community have now decided to join the climate change debate. Whether you are a believer of a denier, it was, nonetheless, obvious that it was always going to be a serious issue for Irish farming; more so given the weight that farming has in the Irish economy.

It is astonishing that there has been little engagement in the climate change debate before now. Farming efficiencies have been targeted to reduce the carbon footprint per unit of production, but that was hardly radical. Hence, climate change agreements, targets and penalties now hang, Sword of Damocles like, over the agri-food industry. And it is now rather late to challenge climate-change science as the rationale behind the need to alter farming systems. The time for debate was before and not after agricultural expansion targets were set in stone within Irish agri-food policy?

A broad climate-change consensus is in place so that horse has long since left the stable. It was, however, obvious that Ireland’s much vaunted agri-food strategies were, at best, going to flat line GHG emissions and that should have led to a directional debate several years ago? Not having it has now magnified the problem. As with the agri-food strategies impact upon farm incomes, it appears that ignoring crucial subjects was the favoured, head-in-the-sand, issue-denial approach.

So, is it fair to suggest that there is climate-change denial around? And, if so, should we add this to a list that contains denials about the state of farm incomes and the wider rural economy? And how about the reality of the future of the family farm, are they sustainable without the support of the taxpayer and off-farm employment? Is there also a refusal to accept that a commodity-focus cannot deliver viability for small-by-global-market-supplier-standards farmers? And has the focus on consolidating the processing sector, left farmers with too few options to find more lucrative markets themselves? On the environmental side, what about the decline in farmland birds or the presence of so many green but wildflower-less pastures? Issues denial seems to be rather common.

Despite the emphasis place upon it, climate change is not the only major issue in town. There are others that will impact upon long-term food security. There should be far more debate about the resilience of our later-20th Century food-producing solutions. The efficacy of many are in decline as natural resistance to them builds. Others are too fossil-fuel reliant. It is also possible to suggest that soil degradation and soil health may be a greater threat to food security than climate change itself. But where are the debates on these issues? It is an unhealthy environment where debate is stifled, as it unhappily is in Ireland’s agri-food sector.

The situation is different across the Irish Sea. There the debate about the future of farming and food is typified by the Oxford Farming Conference and the Oxford Real Farming Conference sitting side-by-side. The latter is ‘greener’ and it is questioning the conventions of what has become known as ‘conventional’ agriculture. Its rising prominence is important in highlighting the alternatives.

True, British farmers have the advantage of a large domestic market on their doorstep and, hence, the option of direct sales and making the contact with the consumer that leads to an awareness of what concerns consumers. The direct seller is also often a farmer who wishes to do things differently or who has decided that business sustainability dictates change. Hence, the direct market-place is a fertile ground for alternative ideas. It is helping to bring together farmers and consumers and, funded by those consumers, the various ‘green’ and ‘ethical’ lobbying organisations.

There is engagement between lobbyists and farmers and many lobbying organisations are now putting forward their vision for the future of food, farming, the environment, and rural communities. For Irish farmers who often see environmental lobby groups as an unequivocal threat to their future well-being, it may be a surprise to see that high on many a lobbyist’s agenda is the viability of farming and especially the very family farms that typify Ireland. One would even venture that in the UK the future of family farms is intrinsically linked to support from the ‘green’ and ‘ethical’ lobbies!

Such a conciliatory and positive position between farming and environmental lobbyists must also be reached in Ireland if the country’s traditional family farms are to have a future. There is, however, little sign of the necessary dialogue happening. It is a stand-off that must end soon as there is so much to do and it can only effectively be done together.

IS IRISH FARMING PREPARED FOR MAJOR CAP REFORM?

Very shortly after I posted to my blog yesterday, I received notification of a blog posting by prof. Alan Matthews; it was about a paper he had co-authored with, among others, prof. Allan Buckwell. The paper can be accessed here 2017_RISE_CAP_Full_Report. It contains a lot of sound thinking around a complex subject. I have known the latter Allan for some 30 years so that is no great surprise. I may have liked to see some stronger linkages to some on-the-ground farming issues, but maybe I am expecting too much, comprehending the machinations of the CAP itself is complex enough. I would suggest that everyone involved with providing leadership to Irish farming sits down and reads it, thoroughly.

My immediate thought upon browsing the paper was to ask the question, ‘is any country less equipped than Ireland to deal with the consequences of major CAP reform?’. It was not a case of asking ‘is Ireland ready for CAP reform’ or such like, my instinctive reaction was to use the phrase ‘is any country less equipped’! For a farming industry that spends so much on funding its farming leadership, that is a shocking indictment of the situation. Ireland wants to engage in the debate over CAP reform but its aim appears to be to maintain the status quo. From my perspective, it cannot, apparently, countenance the idea that the European tax payer may want to see a reduction in the CAP budget or a transference of money away from direct farming support. I think it is fair to say that the Irish approach to CAP reform is to ask for more of the same but with the bureaucratic burden reformed and reduced. With Britain leaving it even wants to see the EU tax payer fill the ‘black hole’ in the CAP’s finances that Britain will leave behind.

Sadly, I have long since concluded that most of Irish farming’s leadership lives in a parallel universe. The reason is probably due to the overly political nature of Irish farmer representation. Just how do you get elected to its leadership if you have a tough message to sell? It ends up with a ‘popularized’ approach and the telling of voters, for that is who the organisations’ membership are, what they want to hear, not what they need to hear. It is little different from modern mainstream politics. CAP reform provides a clear case in point; the leadership’s position is that we must insist upon the continued transfer of EU/Irish taxpayer funds to Irish farmers, period. I recently described it as a Dickensian approach, ‘bowl-in-hand, more please Sir’, to farming leadership. At every turn and in response to every crisis, it is about asking others for help.

Has a serious dependency culture been allowed to develop over the years? I find it difficult to conclude otherwise. It is a situation that precludes addressing the possibility that the other 26 countries of the EU may decide it is time to seriously restructure the CAP, how it functions and what its purpose is. Apparently, there are some strong professional voices calling for it to happen [as per the aforementioned paper]. Now Irish farming may punch well above its weight in EU agricultural lobbying terms and I wonder if any other EU farming community commits so much expenditure to lobbying in Brussels, but Ireland is only one in 27 and its population and its representative numbers a little over one percent of the EU total. Realistically, Irish farmers should expect to get what they are going to get and planning for a status quo, post 2020, may not be such a good idea.

I am not at all surprised that I am writing this about potential CAP reform. I have only been in Ireland a relatively short time but a common theme I have identified is that farming here lurches from one crisis to another. When those crises are market-driven, it is no great surprise as it is difficult to imagine that anyone has ever developed a post-farm-gate processing and exporting system that is so unsuited to the farming structure that serves it. Worse, such has even been embedded in its sacrosanct national agri-food policies. I can only think of one Irish farming leader who is willing to highlight and question this anomaly. The rest, apparently, prefer to see the tax payer pick up the shortfall in farming incomes that occur because it is nigh on impossible for the market to deliver a decent income to Ireland’s small-scale family farms. To that objective, the system is designed to fail.

This post seems to be becoming about the telling the brutal realities of life. Thankfully I have no intention of seeking election to Ireland’s farming leadership. And therein lies the problem, we are facing some of the most complex issues to ever face farmers; be they related to climate change, food security, health and nutrition, consumer demands for high animal welfare, taxpayer demands for farmers to deliver both food and public services… the list goes on, but where is the engagement in these issues by Irish farming’s leadership? Is it happening?

The debate around these many issues is now beginning to happen in the UK; it is one consequence of Brexit and the re-nationalization of food and farming policy back to London and, probably, Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast. The array of interested lobby groups in the UK is just too strong for the debate not to occur and my advice to UK farming groups is to engage with them to develop a thoroughly modern food, farming, environmental, rural policy. And reading the paper I mentioned at the beginning, the EU-27 will be, almost in parallel, actively debating CAP reform. But will Ireland really be engaged in the process or will a too entrenched, driven-by-domestic-farming-politics, position leave the CAP to be reformed by others? If so, it will have consequences and I do not doubt that they will be consequences that Irish farming is unprepared for. It will be yet another crisis for Irish farmers and one that, through a lack of engagement at home and a leadership unwilling to suggest and promote change, they will be far less than prepared for?

IRELAND’S FAILURE TO DOMESTICATE THE UK FOOD MARKET

As I was writing about Brexit earlier, I was thinking upon the position that Irish farmers now find themselves in. Elsewhere I have said that it is the single most important issue facing Irish farming since the Emergency [that is World War Two for readers outside of Ireland]. I have also recently read it described as the greatest challenge facing Irish farming since the Republic came into existence.

Somehow there was an inevitability about the latest crisis to hit Irish farming. If it was not Brexit it would have been triggered by a proliferation of international trade deals that exposed Irish farmers to the chill winds of free-trade. It may well happen for UK farmers post-Brexit, but at least UK farmers got to vote in the Referendum; unlike their Irish counterparts who are just being taken along for the ride.

As I stated in my earlier post ‘Post-Brexit delusions about deregulation’, I can see British farmers responding to the threat from cheaper imports by creating comprehensive unique-selling-points for their products. By so doing they will self-impose greater regulation upon themselves than what they lose from leaving the EU. It is perverse but quite probable. A major part of such a market-driven strategy will be to fully exploit ‘local’ and ‘British’. And therein is the crux of the matter for Irish farmers, they are neither ‘British’ or ‘local’; although one could argue that Wexford is closer to London than any part of Scotland.

Now, for historical reasons, I know the UK food markets reasonably well. I was taught at College to walk the food aisles and have been doing so ever since. And as I have alluded to frequently, I am shocked by how poor the presence of Irish produce is. As far as consumer-facing, visibly-Irish products go, Ireland is a one trick pony, Kerrygold butter. Yes, Ornua controls a major cheese brand in Pilgrims’ Choice but you would have to be knowledgeable to know that it is Irish.

As for Irish beef, it is only in three supermarkets [Asda, Sainsbury and Tesco] and even then, it fills the ‘budget’ and ‘standard’ shelves. Again, as I have said before, Irish beef finds its way into mince, meatballs and burgers. It is not the premium, grass-fed product that Irish farmers envisage or expect. They frequently send well-reared stock off to the factories that grade well. They are also likely to quality assured. And they end up on the bottom shelves of UK supermarkets or in burgers served up by the burger chains. If one is at the foundations of such a food chain, can one really expect to receive a premium price? And if you are so positioned, far better that you are a low-cost Brazilian rancher than a small-scale, Irish family farm.

Just why has Ireland ended up in such a weak market position in the UK? It is after all Ireland’s major market and it is one that it is highly dependent on; a fact that it will not be able to change in a short space of time before and after the reality of Brexit. With such a dependency, it is truly shocking that the country has allowed its food products to become [Kerrygold apart] nearly invisible in the UK. It is a marketing failure of truly awesome proportions.

One can probably find rational explanations for such a situation. Possibly the supermarkets have not wanted to promote Irish beef [after all British beef holds something of a special place in the minds of UK consumers similar to ‘English strawberries’]. Has the status quo been perfectly acceptable to the factories? Has it suited them to operate a simplified high-throughput, low-margin-per-head model; not least in the face of a supply base that offers them a far from homogenous raw material. They must also deal with the purchasing weight of the few buyers from the retailers and burger chains. And as for cheese, maybe it is a sound strategic choice not to put Irish front and centre when it comes to promoting Irish-origin cheddar in the UK. All of them are interesting explanations but they all leave the Irish farmer devilishly exposed to what Brexit might well usher in.

What I cannot understand is how so little has been done to develop Irish products for the UK markets. And by that, I mean products that would have created a following and a brand loyalty that goes beyond the UK-living Irish community. France does it, Italy does it, and others do it. In my childhood years, New Zealand Anchor butter was iconic [and how NZ must now regret having sold off the rights to use the Anchor brand to Arla Foods] and NZ lamb had a great reputation’ Likewise Argentina for its beef. And the owners of the Dewhurst chain of high-street butchers were ranching and processing across South America. They even owned the Blue Star Line to ship their beef back to the UK. And then as now, if you wanted cheese, you thought of France. Why then did the development of Irish products stall after Kerrygold?

The lack of recognized products and brands is now going to make dealing with Brexit that much more difficult for the Irish farming industry. Just how much easier would it have been if the UK consumer has developed an affinity over the years for an array of Irish food products? Due to location alone, British consumer should be thinking that Irish is not British but it is local and it is produced to standards that are clearly akin to those employed by Britain’s own farming industry. Food miles are obviously lower and there is a strong, untold story about Irish family farms and rural Ireland. The story is there but the book remains unpublished. And sadly, when it is, where are the products to accompany the marketing story? This is, and it should be recognized as one of the great mysteries of food marketing; just how did the Irish fail to ‘domesticate’ the UK market?

IS ANYONE VISITING CHELTENHAM OR AINTREE THIS YEAR?

With so much discussion going on in the Irish farming industry about Brexit and free-trade agreements at present, I thought it was time to ask the Irish farmer to have a look at their primary market, the UK, and the presence of Irish products on its supermarket shelves.

With the annual pilgrimage to the Cheltenham Festival nearly upon us and Aintree soon after, it is a good time to make a suggestion and, hopefully, gain some feedback.

A quick Google reveals that Cheltenham offers the full gamut of UK supermarkets; Asda, Sainsbury and Tesco [where you will find Irish beef] and Lidl, Aldi and Morrisons where you probably won’t. It also has a Waitrose and that is where I suggest one goes if one aspires to being a producer of premium foods. As food retail chains go, few are better than Waitrose.

As one cannot expect a racegoer to spend hours trawling the aisles of supermarkets, I would suggest to focus is on the meat and dairy shelves; that is after all what Irish farming is about; at least when we are talking exports. And please do not just investigate the chilled-produce shelves but also the delicatessen and butchery counters. It is the latter that often, conveniently, use national flags to highlight the country of origin. Just how numerous are the green, white and orange flags of Ireland? The counters are also staffed so do ask for Irish. Elsewhere one may have to read the small print.

So, what to look for? Kerrygold butter is a good starting point as it is likely to be the most obvious. How does it look upon the shelves? Is it asking you to put it in your basket or trolley? How does it compare with the competition in terms of presentation, packaging, its storyline and its price? Does it have unique selling points? And then move on to look for other Irish produce.

Ireland has two near-national quality assurance schemes, both of which are well known to Irish farmers and Irish farmers. Given that Ireland exports a few multiples of its domestic market size to the UK, just how visible and strong is Irish QA scheme presence on the UK supermarket shelves? Do they highlight that the premium status of Irish produce? Do they and other point-of-sale presence of Irish produce say, “buy me, I am Irish and I am special”? One would hope so.

This is only a suggestion knowing that a few Irish folk will be crossing the water soon. But I will go further, if you find yourself in the USA, Germany, the Gulf States or even China and you have an interest in Irish farming and food, please take the time to walk the aisles of the food retailers, it is always a surprisingly enlightening experience.