Can small food businesses drive the economy?

Sheila Dillon | 14:48 UK time, Monday, 20 September 2010

When I first went to Northern Ireland about 12 years ago to report for The Food Programme the contrast with the Republic was stark. Down south quality food production was high on the political agenda: there was an open-arms welcome for food entrepreneurs at the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in Dublin, quickly followed by grants, soft loans and practical support.

In the North the farmers I met told me how depressing it was to deal with Whitehall via Stormont. Unless you were big and industrial, aspiring food producers were just a pain for the bureaucrats. So, in the Republic quality food – made by small and artisan producers – became a big draw for tourists and great for high-value exports. In the North commodities for the mass market – milk powder and intensively reared pork, chicken and beef – continued to be the mainstays of farming.

Now it’s all change up North. When I went to the province earlier this summer the contrast with my first visit couldn’t have been more amazing.  High quality food has finally been identified by the NI Assembly in their Focus on Food strategy as the way to create jobs, boost exports and foster tourism. And it’s working.

Over the last five years potato farmers Tracy and Martin Hamilton have created a phenomenon in Mash Direct, a company producing a whole cornucopia of chilled vegetable dishes, mostly mashes: the traditional Irish ones – colcannon (potatoes with kale and spring onions), champ (potatoes and spring onions) – and more unusual ones such as beetroot and red cabbage.  In their on-farm factory they steam their own potatoes and neighbouring farmers‘ vegetables to produce vegetable dishes that are now in every supermarket and deli in the province as well as many top restaurants. While they were just farmers and going broke they employed five people – now it’s 92.

Will Taylor was also slowly going broke on his dairy farm in County Down when he decided to try producing ice cream – still a rare diversification in the North. With a little practical help from central government, Glastry Farm Ice Cream specialises in local flavour: their Yellowman honeycomb is seriously spectacular. Like Mash Direct, they have found an enthusiastic market for every litre they turn out.

Artisan baking entrepreneur Robert Ditty was working against the mainstream 12 years ago when I first met him and is now riding high exporting his special oat cakes (his smoked and Gubbeen-flavoured oatcakes have taste dimensions you never dreamed were possible in a humble oat cracker). He employs over 70 people.

Public sector cuts are coming to Northern Ireland and that will certainly cut the budget for the new food strategy, but what I saw was compelling evidence that these small, quality-led businesses deserve to be taken seriously. There might even be a model there for the rest of Britain. Food and agriculture as drivers of the economy? What a great idea.

Are you starting a food business and require support? Do you think that food and agriculture can drive economic growth? What can small producers and farmers do to survive (or even thrive?) in the current climate?

Shelia Dillon is the presenter of Radio 4’s The Food Programme.

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