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Crunch time for apple sector as research centre faces axe

By Linda Stewart

Apple growers in Northern Ireland fear the future of their industry could be under threat if a research facility into the fruit at Loughgall is closed.

It is understood that DARD is considering closing the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI) station by March 2013 as part of cost-saving measures needed to meet Government-wide cuts.

The Armagh Bramley has been put forward as a candidate to have its name protected as a Protected Geographical Indicator, similar to Parmesan cheese or Champagne wine, but growers are concerned that closing the research station will jeopardise plans to market the distinctiveness of the apple.

They say they won’t be able to use research carried out elsewhere as Armagh’s apples are grown in such distinctive soil and weather conditions.

The Armagh apple industry is centred on Loughgall and worth an estimated £30 million a year. It produces between 20,000 and 50,000 tonnes a year for the juice, cider, fresh cooking apple and processed apple markets, supplying companies including Magners, Mr Kipling and Sara Lee.

It is understood that closure of the facility was one of the draft cost-saving measures outlined in a memo which has been made public by AFBI staff. The station employs 69 staff, 59 of them permanent and 10 seasonal.

Northern Ireland Fruit Growers Association (NIFGA) chairman John Beggs said closing the facility would be a bitter blow to the industry.

“In terms of technology transfer, from research level to farm level, the apple sector represents

real value for money for the public purse,” he said. “Where else in the whole of DARD’s interface with producers does it regularly have 25% of those producers turning up for a technical workshop? Yet this is a regular occurrence at events run at the apple research centre at Loughgall.

“When an apple grower plants an acre of Bramley orchard he is making a commitment to the industry which will last for at least 25 years. NIFGA would hope that DARD will take a similar attitude with apple research and not ruin the industry by taking the short sighted view.

DUP MLA for Newry Armagh WIlliam Irwin said he was worried DARD may also withdraw from vital research into potato breeding, mushrooms and agri-forestry.

He said the vast majority of new grass varieties included in grass seed mixes have been developed and tested at Loughgall and are bred for local conditions.

“I was shocked and dismayed to learn that DARD is considering withdrawing from the site by March 2013, selling off the site and, more alarmingly, withdrawing from vital research into apples, potatoes, mushrooms and agri-forestry,” he said.

“I have no doubt that this will have a direct impact on research programmes based at AFBI sites such as Hillsborough.”

A spokesman for DARD said no decisions have yet been taken.

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