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Greater appreciation of locally-produced food is one of pandemic’s few positives…

Under different circumstances, farmers and food firms across Northern Ireland would be in the final stages of getting ready for this year’s Balmoral Show. Animals would be well groomed, plans would be made, and the anticipation would be building.

As it turns out, the show won’t be happening this year, neither during its original dates in May nor it’s rearranged dates in August, as a result of COVID-19. Like other shows of its kind, including the Royal Highland and the Royal Welsh, it has been postponed for this year.

But Cormac McKervey, senior agriculture manager at Ulster Bank, says that, despite some clear challenges in recent months and having no Balmoral Show to look forward to this year, farming is generally in reasonable shape.

“Balmoral Show is always an exciting time of year for farmers and a time of positivity, so the fact there is no show in 2020 will of course be disappointing. But farmers are pragmatic and are getting on with business; and they’ll enjoy the show all the more when it’s back,” he points out.

“Currently, farmers are getting reasonable returns from the market with some sectors, such as beef, more profitable than others. But generally the sector is in good shape, particularly when compared to other parts of the economy.“There was no doubt great concern whenever COVID-19 began to spread and social distancing restrictions were brought in. In particular, farmers saw a significant impact from the shutdown of the food service sector with hotels, restaurants, cafes and bars not operating. But thankfully that area of business has come back in recent weeks, which can be seen in the prices some farmers are now achieving for their produce,” he continues.

Cormac was speaking during an episode of Ulster Bank’s Thrive in the New World podcast, presented by Sarah Travers. The episode is being published on Wednesday 5th August 2020. The podcast series is available on Ulster Bank’s Content Live platform and through popular podcast platforms.

Cormac was joined in the episode by Michele Shirlow, CEO of Food NI, who spoke about the challenges and opportunities facing the wider food sector in Northern Ireland. She highlighted how food and drink firms have adapted extremely quickly in the face of COVID-19.

“It has been really impressive how food producers have found alternative routes to market. Whether it’s home delivery services, selling more online, adapting their products, or diversifying. Retailers have also fed back how impressed they are that local producers have been able to deliver throughout the pandemic, reliably and on time. They have really stepped up and made sure there was food and drink in the supermarkets for us to buy. This speaks volumes about the sector,” Michele says.

“It has no doubt been very tough for those supplying the hospitality industry in particular, but even they have adapted. There has been a huge amount of innovation across the food and drink sectors.

“We also have a lot of innovation going on in the area of health, with companies coming up with ways of producing products that are better for us. This includes the likes of Finnebrogue with their nitrate free bacon. And this is an issue that is coming more and more to the fore. I think the pandemic is making people even more conscious of eating food that is healthier and Northern Ireland’s food producers will continue to respond to this,” Michele adds.

Cormac McKervey says one thing that has changed as a result of the current pandemic is the enhanced perception of farmers and the appreciation of where food comes. He says recent months have made consumers think more about the food supply chain and have come to view farmers as front-line workers

“The role of farmers in keeping food supplied throughout the worst of the pandemic has rightly been well recognised. The consumer is now better engaged with locally sourced food and the one million plus signatures of the NFU campaign calling for imported food to meet UK food production standards demonstrates that people do care about how food is grown and produced. The need for sustainable and robust food production systems has been clearly demonstrated,” he continues.

Rhonda Geary, Director of Operations of the RUAS which organises Balmoral Show, says that this is a real positive for the agri food sector and something the show will aim to build on.

“Promoting fantastic, locally-produced food is always at the heart of Balmoral Show. So too is engaging the wider public in agriculture and its vital role in society. One of the positives during pandemic is the increased awareness of and appreciation for the local food supply chain is one of them, and that’s something that we look forward to building on in the show in 2021,” she adds.