Article by Michele Shirlow for Farm Week
The agricultural show season is now in full swing, and I do my utmost to visit as many as practicable. Why? It’s because I enjoy them and value the opportunity they provide to meet for me to meet as many people as I can in both food and farming.
They are an integral part of our summer, a great way to showcase all that is excellent about our most important industry and one which reaches every part of Northern Ireland. Aided by reasonably good weather, the shows are continuing to grow in popularity. Reflecting the outstanding success of the RUAS at Balmoral, the shows are attracting more exhibitors, including many more food and drink companies, as well as visitors from country and town.
The shows have also moved well beyond livestock and tractors over the past five years and now highlight the importance of our vibrant food and drink industry, especially in rural communities.
What they also do very effectively is to strengthen the bridge between farming, food and consumers. They are places were people from all walks to life come together and socialise. This is particularly important because farming is an occupation in which it’s easy to become isolated. And social isolation often leads to depression and other conditions, and there are indications that these problems are on the rise.
This is a worrying trend which is being exacerbated by the difficulties the industry has experienced particularly in recent years. And there’s post-election confusion surrounding access to the European markets.
Challenges have grown from an ever-changing world. Our farmers have had to grapple with difficulties arising from market volatility that have eroded margins and are now facing uncertainty from the UK’s decision to withdraw from the EU and the likely impact especially in sales of milk and lambs to the Republic of Ireland. Currency volatility has meant feed and other costs, such as fuel, rising steadily and adversely impacting margins.
We are concerned because preserving the family farms which dominate the farming industry here is a key theme in our Taste the Greatness strategic action plan. Our vibrant and increasingly successful food industry is dependent on the superb ingredients supplied by our farmers. A healthy and prosperous farming industry is essential if our economy, especially in rural areas, is to grow and communities prosper.
We need a successful series of agricultural shows to enable the industry to showcase its products, expertise and innovation to the wider community. A successful food industry also encourages more young people to commit to rural communities. In addition to offering worthwhile employment opportunities, the industry drives enterprise both on farms and in businesses. Over the generations we’ve seen some really smart ideas being transformed into international business success. And not just in food and drink.
Of course a host of successful food companies began life on farms. And our most successful engineering sector, quarrying and washing equipment, has its roots firmly bedded on a family farm near Omagh in Co Tyrone. As a result, Northern Ireland is now the world centre of excellence in the design and manufacture of such sophisticated machinery.
This is why everyone here should celebrate and enjoy our agricultural shows. It’s why we are encouraging as many of our food and drink members to get involved. They are a great opportunity to market products and create awareness of food and drink made here.