Belfast Telegraph

Farmers won't join Northern Ireland's Year of Food and Drink, says dairy processor

And hospitality chief warns of new Living Wage impact

By Staff Reporters

Farmers struggling with low prices for their produce will have "difficulty relating" to the 2016 Year of Food and Drink, a high-profile dairy processor has said.

Next year will see a major celebration of the province's produce in a programme led by Tourism NI and Food NI, with hotelier Howard Hastings of the Hastings Group at the helm.

But one representative of the hospitality trade said he was concerned about the impact of the Living Wage on hotels and pubs. The minimum wage will be scrapped and replaced by a Living Wage of £7.20 in April 2016, just as the Year of Food and Drink gets into full swing.

Colin Neill, chief executive of Hospitality Ulster, said its members were asking "how they are going to pay for it".

"By 2020, we estimate that it will put an average of £5,000 per person on the wage bill in the hospitality industry. It poses a huge challenge - if businesses pass it on to customers, it will mean price rises of around 21%."

Will Taylor, a dairy farmer who makes Glastry Farm ice-cream on his farm in Kircubbin, said he would urge farmers to support the year's event.

But he said most dairy producers had made no money this year, due to a major drop in prices.

According to the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD), farmers were receiving 18.65p per litre in August this year, compared to a recent high of 34.35p in December 2013.

And DARD said it would be running a regional food programme during the year for companies wanting to promote regional food.

Mr Taylor said: "Many farmers will have difficulty relating to the Year of Food - anyone in the production side, in fact, no matter what sector they are in.

"The sad reality is that there may be some who are over-borrowed, over-staffed, and others with perhaps not enough land of their own are renting expensive conacre and who are just in an untenable situation."

But they should nonetheless throw their weight behind the year's events, Mr Taylor said.

"Anything whatsoever that promotes Northern Ireland food has to be good. But let's not just talk to ourselves about this," he said.

"This has to be something that's envisioned on a much, much wider audience that Northern Ireland, because if we don't, I think it will fail."

The roots of the Year of Food are in Northern Ireland's farmers - but hotels, restaurants and pubs are in the frontline.

But hospitality continues to be hampered by the Republic's lower Vat rate, according to Howard Hastings, managing director of the Year of Food, and of Hastings Hotels group.

Businesses here are competing with a low hospitality Vat rate of just 9% in the Republic, compared with 20% throughout the UK.

Mr Hastings said: "Vat is an issue, as is the strong currency for the Republic, as well as air passenger duty (APD). That makes us less competitive for short breaks from Great Britain.

"Those would be the three main ones. But despite those headwinds, this year has been very strong."

Agriculture Minister Michelle O'Neill said the Year of Food and Drink was "an opportunity to showcase the north of Ireland as a quality food destination both locally and internationally".

She said: "It is also an opportunity to provide a platform for sharing the supply chain story from primary producer through to consumer. I and my department are committed to the delivery of the Year of Food and Drink 2016 and funding for promotion of regional quality food can be availed through the NI Regional Food Programme which will soon be opening for applications.

"I want to see all players in the sector sharing equitably in the risks and rewards for their hard work and contribution."

Belfast Telegraph