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Michele Shirlow MBE – Farm Week Column 4 July 2019

It’s great to see Comber Earlies back in the shops and supermarkets again and in time for last weekend’s colourful carnival celebration of the tasty spud around Comber. It’s always great fun and a tremendous occasion, every year I love to meet the producers of one of just four food products here which have gained EU protection. We need to remember just how important that designated status is.

In addition to the potatoes, Lough Neagh Eels and Armagh Bramley apples have also been awarded PGI, Protected Geographic Indication status, Lough Neagh Pollan has attained EU Protected Designation of Origin recognition, an even rarer accolade. Another unique product has emerged which would potentially qualify as a PGI/ PGO product, namely the Lough Foyle Oyster. It’s still not clear what this protection will mean, if anything, when the UK withdraws from the EU after 31 st October. I hope it doesn’t see the EU-wide protection of four historic…and delicious…local foods being lost.

The Comber celebration was, once again, an outstanding success for Comber growers, acknowledging the skill required to grow a product which has a short lifespan in the stores and on dinner tables…but it is utterly delicious, and life just wouldn’t be the same without them. You just can’t beat a steamed Comber Early with a dollop of locally produced butter.

I am delighted that the Comber festival continues to grow in popularity and especially with children and young people. It’s vitally important for the long-term future of this key local sector that the healthy benefits of including local potatoes in a healthy and balanced diet is reinforced by events such as this one in Comber and the other major potato event in the Causeway and Glens, which regrettably had to be cancelled earlier in the year because of strong winds and rain. So disappointing for the organisers and I commend their dedication to the
festival.

It’s encouraging for the sector that recent research has indicated that the potato is holding its own with shoppers against pasta. I know local supermarkets, delis, farm shops and independents continue to weigh in behind an industry which has often led consumer sales with innovative products and packaging formats that make potatoes a much more convenient, delicious and nutritious meal. Packaging innovations have also reduced waste.

As a result, it’s much easier than ever before to enjoy our delicious potatoes grown with pride and passion by farmers long committed to the protection of our fragile environment.

As I mentioned earlier in this column, retailers are working alongside the industry in partnership on smart ideas for novel potato products. I commend their commitment to collaboration with our farmers.

For instance, it was immensely important to see the Henderson Group, one of our highly supportive members, lining up with growers to launch the novel Greengrocer’s Range, especially vegetables, in a convenient format for consumers shopping in its network of Spar, Eurospar and Vivo stores. The £100,000 investment and promotion is designed to boost sales of over 100 products, many newly developed with local suppliers.

The convenience range includes diced and sliced vegetables, packaged leaves, salads and microwaveable or stir fry ingredients. Currently, Henderson’s sources 75 percent of fresh food from a chain of local farms and smaller processors.

This is a hugely significant development for the local industry and is also being followed by a Bakery range from local suppliers. Its hugely encouraging to see local retailers continue to work in this way with local suppliers, it’s an approach which must be replicated across the whole retail sector.