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How exports are key when building on the success of our food and drinks industry

By Matt McCullough

Published 29/09/2015

The province’s food and drink processing industry enjoys healthy sales
The province’s food and drink processing industry enjoys healthy sales

The renaissance of microbreweries, home-crafted foods and bespoke textiles are playing an ever increasing role in the vibrancy of our local economy.

Many of the recipes and practices are age-old, and a swathe of support for locally grown or produced food and retro fashions have brought many of these recipes from out of the kitchen and into the shopfront.

My family and I are regular visitors to St George's Market on a Saturday morning and it's gratifying to see how local people have become 'masters' of their niche, be that coffee, bread, cheese, spirits or beer. But is there really a global market for such goods?

There are already examples of premium Northern Irish produce being shipped around the world. Bushmills may have suffered in recent times as the 'second Irish whiskey' after Pernod Ricard's Jameson, but has recently been revived since being sold by Diageo to Casa Cuervo.

In addition, a lesser-known brand, but worthy of similar acclaim, is Ditty's Home Bakery, based in Castledawson, which supplies the local market with their famous oatcake range, among others. What many don't recognise is that they are also found in Fortnum and Mason, London, and Dean & Deluca, New York, and are on the menu at events such as the Ryder Cup and Wimbledon.

Furthermore, there has been what seems like an overnight success story from ShortCross, Northern Ireland's first premium craft gin, which grasped a modern market trend and positioned itself as a desirable premium international product.

So how do we realise this potential?

One key driver for growth in this sector could be achieved through advancing exports.

When we look at other indigenous sectors, most notably IT and manufacturing, it is clear that a strong export strategy can have positive effects in terms of growth and employment.

Also, diversification can create opportunities and will continue to be of particular interest to our cherished local farmers, who continue to see the wholesale price of milk below the cost of production.

One pertinent example of successful diversification can be found through Will Chase, a Herefordshire potato farmer, who boldly began to produce Chase vodka in 2002, when he was dropped as a supplier by Tyrells Hand Cooked Crisps.

So how do we bridge the gap?

Clearly, there are questions around facilitating growth and funding export strategies, while ensuring that quality and service remain at the forefront of the business and are not sacrificed along the way.

Figures for 2012 showed that the province's food and drink processing industry generated sales of £4.2bn (a 4.2% increase on 2011), and while it is important to make the distinction between Northern Ireland food giants like Moy Park and the smaller operators in the local craft food sector, it does show the already lucrative environment we are operating within.

In the Republic of Ireland, the turnover for craft beer producers in 2014 is estimated at €23m (£17m) and at a projected €39.6m (£29m) for 2015. Again, this shows that the conditions are ripe for Northern Ireland's craft brewers to enjoy international success in the coming months.

Matt McCullough is part of the food and drink team at HNH Group. He is a former Ulster and Ireland rugby player

Belfast Telegraph

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