Speaking at the Farming Life Awards dinner in the Ramada Hotel at Shaw’s Bridge the First Minister of Northern Ireland said,
“I must say straight away that this was one event in the diary that I didn’t want to miss. Tonight we are celebrating the attainment of excellence in a crucial area of Northern Ireland’s industrial output.
The Province’s agri-food sector is known throughout the world for the supreme quality of its produce and the fact that the industries represented here tonight are the most important areas of our economy, makes this awards ceremony hugely significant.
It might surprise you to know that primary agriculture currently employs more than 47,000 people in Northern Ireland and contributes £1.5 billion in gross output to the local economy.
And then there’s the food and drink processing sector, the largest of all the manufacturing outlets in the Province, employing more than 20,000 people and accounting for close to £4 billion in sales.
I think that what has been particularly impressive in recent years is the remarkable growth in this sector. Despite the greatest global downturn in living memory, Northern Ireland’s food production has continued to grow, with turnover rising by more than 8.2 % in 2012. This industry is unique in that its value is spread across the Province and is not restricted to one particular location. Recent research also indicates that for every job created in food and drinks manufacturing, another two jobs are created in the wider regional economy.
The current Executive has been quick to recognise the importance of the food and drinks sector and has prioritised it in its Programme for Government and Economic Strategy. Because along with advanced materials and engineering; life and health sciences; telecommunications and ICT, agri-food has been identified as one of the key industries that can continue to grow and help Northern Ireland emerge from the downturn.
In order to help deliver on the high level targets listed in the Programme for Government both DARD and DETI, the two Government departments with responsibility for the sector, have set up the Food Strategy Board for Northern Ireland. The Board is made up of both primary producers and processors and has been tasked to produce a blueprint for expansion. Its work has the support of the entire Executive and I look forward to seeing its recommendations before the end of this year.
Many of the challenges facing the food and drinks sector are similar to those confronting other businesses across Northern Ireland. Rising energy costs, difficulty in securing access to affordable finance and recruiting a properly skilled workforce are challenges common across manufacturing.
On the question of energy I can confirm tonight that plans to extend the gas network are at an advanced stage and it is my hope that the Executive will be in a position to make a decision in the coming weeks which will see an extension of the supply to the mid-Ulster area. This would significantly reduce energy costs for many food processing companies based outside the current pipeline network.
Meanwhile Invest NI has been playing its part through a series of programmes under the Boosting Business initiative designed to help support Northern Ireland companies, including those in the food and drinks sector. Since the launch of the jobs fund last year help has been provided to create more than 3,300 new jobs – many within agri-foods – and the largest offer to date has gone to Vion for its processing factory at Cookstown.
Invest NI has also allocated £100 million to its ‘Access to Finance’ strategy. This scheme includes a £50 million growth loan fund which offers unsecured finance to companies wishing to expand but having difficulty obtaining the necessary funds.
Over the last 12 months, there have been many challenges facing agri-food producers and in particular farming. The continued economic crisis, particularly within Europe, has resulted in consumers shopping around for better deals. The trend within the retail sector has moved from consumers looking for free range and organic goods or best products - to consumers chasing special offerings and cut price deals.
There is no doubt that consumer pressure has driven prices down for both processors and primary producers in Northern Ireland to unsustainable levels and this has been compounded by exchange rate movements between the Euro and Sterling.
The Northern Ireland agri-food sector has also had to deal with the pressure from rising input prices. Nobody in this room tonight needs to be reminded of what a terrible summer we have had with record levels of rainfall and limited periods during which it was possible to salvage crops.
In fact I understand that some farmers have struggled to get sufficient feed harvested to sustain their livestock over winter months. Meanwhile unseasonable weather patterns globally in grain-producing regions have driven up the cost of imported feed.
I have no hesitation in saying that farmers must not suffer in silence. If farmers are feeling real economic pressures they should seek help. Any other sector wouldn’t be slow to raise its voice. This winter is going to be a difficult time for the sector and it is vital that we all work together to try to alleviate any problems that arise, whether this be the local banks extending credit, or DARD speeding up payments and the practical help available through its network of advisors, or by farm organisations providing assistance when required.
However, the grey economic cloud does in this case have a potential silver lining. Despite the current economic difficulties I believe that there are some grounds for optimism. The increase in grain prices is having a global impact and the shortage of supply is beginning to correct prices for the industry.
But although winter is virtually upon us and our thoughts are turning increasingly to planning for the weather, it would be remiss of me to address you tonight without paying my own personal tribute to the fortitude of those engaged in the tough task of producing food from the land.
Farming can be a very dangerous job with many farmers having to work on their own in isolated locations. In recent weeks we have had tragic reminders of the perils that lurk inside the farm gates and the Executive must work closely with the industry to reduce risk and cut the level of accidents.
It is truly shocking that there have been 10 fatalities on farms in Northern Ireland since April, the most recent of which took place in Dungannon last weekend.
I support the work being done by the farm safety partnership that exists between Government and the industry. No other sector would tolerate the level of danger associated with merely doing a day’s work in the service of one’s fellow men and we need to ensure that the safety message is much better understood by all involved.
The more I have learned about it the more I have come to realise that farming and food production entails spending an awful lot of time looking over your shoulder - whether it is working in a safe environment, or managing the intricacies of a complex business.
In the 1960s President Kennedy acknowledged the economic pressures that existed back then when he described the US farmer as:
“the only man in our economy who buys everything at retail, sells everything at wholesale and pays the freight charges both ways…”
And these days, for us, there’s also a thing called Brussels…
The up-coming Common Agricultural Policy reforms will have a significant impact on agricultural production throughout Europe and in particular Northern Ireland. It looks more and more likely that the key negotiations on the future of the CAP will take place during the Irish Presidency of the EU in the first six months of 2013.
I very much hope that we can get agreement on the CAP during the Irish presidency as the vast majority of challenges facing farming here are identical to those confronting the Republic. I would be a good deal more content if the Irish agriculture minister were to decide the future of the Common Agricultural Policy in the first half of 2013 than being left to the wisdom of the Lithuanian agriculture minister in the latter part of 2013.
At the beginning of my remarks I briefly mentioned the Executive’s Programme for Government and the Economic Strategy. These together represent our roadmap for regeneration – the route to Northern Ireland’s recovery. The focus is on taking our goods to new customers abroad and in marketing the Province as a world class location for Foreign Direct Investment.
The deputy First Minister and I have already made marketing forays into the Middle East and to India. The People’s Republic of China is our next destination in a couple of week’s time.
The Executive is extremely proud of the fact that currently more than 60% of all commercially produced food and drink here is sold outside Northern Ireland. One of our key policies in rebuilding the economy is to increase the level of exports leaving these shores and food production has a key role to play.
Currently, retailers in Great Britain source more than £1.5 billion worth of goods from Northern Ireland companies and I am pleased to say that this is growing year on year.
We need to be working to ensure that Northern Ireland producers are included in even more listings in multiple stores outside the Province. To make this happen, local companies must continue to innovate and produce what the market requires. They’ve been doing this with considerable success already with nearly 50 firms scoring successes in the UK Great Taste Awards and Hannon Meats of Moira emerging as UK supreme champion. But I’m greedy for more of the same please and I want to see more local products featured in multiple stores right across the UK.
In order for you to prosper and for Northern Ireland’s recovery to be successful, our producers need to look beyond these islands in order to increase the value of their exports. Invest NI is working with local firms to help them compete in new and emerging markets throughout the World. And by way of example within the last number of weeks senior executives from a major German distributor, which has access to more than 80 million customers, visited Northern Ireland and were introduced to 13 local manufacturers.
Make no mistake about this, Northern Ireland companies have what it takes to walk on the world stage. They have won business in places like Dubai, South Africa, the Far East and India and Invest NI has offices located in 27 different markets throughout the globe and mounts more than 50 trade missions and international exhibitions each year.
With growing wealth in new and emerging markets and increased competition for food, we are extremely well placed to increase the value of our food exports.
In the coming days I’ll be leading a trade mission to China in order to open new market opportunities for Northern Ireland. Accompanying us will be almost 20 companies associated with the food and drink sector. Some of our local firms are already supplying products to customers in China, especially Hong Kong. These commodities include milk powder, meat, seafood, cheese, whiskey, breakfast cereals and snacks. And over the coming years I believe we can significantly increase the level of this trade with China, particularly in pork and dairy products.
To sum up, I would say that the future of Northern Ireland’s food industry has never looked better. Throughout the world there is increasing pressure on agricultural land to grow combustible energy crops instead of food. Meanwhile emerging economies are demanding a more western diet, thereby increasing demand for the products we have to sell.
Ironically for us, global water shortages are reinforcing this trend by reducing the output from regions that traditionally exported food.
This presents us with a challenge and a perfect opportunity. Our time has arrived. All we have to do is come out from under our umbrellas and seize the opportunity to meet this new demand for food!
Ladies and gentlemen, the farming and agri-food industries are making an immense contribution to the wider economy in Northern Ireland. Be in no doubt about that. My job, in leadership of the Northern Ireland Executive, is to build you a shop window on the world.
I know no other sector of our economy that is better fitted to stock that shop with quality produce and meet the challenge to succeed.”