Belfast Telegraph

With just a little nous, you really can live off the land

Having opened up a first-ever missive on the local agricultural industry last week, this column was loath to return to the subject so soon for fear of sector bias, but yesterday's news couldn't go unmentioned.

Latest statistics from the 'ministry', as it's fondly known amongst the farming community, revealed that our green and undulating fields aren't just a pretty backdrop to the 'newer' industries.

The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development revealed that Total Income from Farming in Northern Ireland, or TIFF as they catchily call it around Dundonald House, rose by a quite frankly incredible 20.8% to £308m in 2011.

On the face of it you could sit back and say the global commodity market is to thank for such an incredible performance and certainly farmers have been able to take advantage of rising prices for the likes of meat, milk and grain.

But one man's product is another man's input, what with arable farmers enjoying higher prices for grain but having to pay up for fertilizer, fuel and chemicals, while livestock farmers have to pay up for the grain to feed their animals and probably spend a chunk on some of the other inputs as well.

This means that the practitioners of the oldest profession in the land (careful now) have had to be masters of the margin, managing inputs with the attention of a fighter pilot while trying to maximise the price for their products in an increasingly cash-strapped consumer world which has become accustomed to cheap food.

The canny ones have even taken to adding value, something which not that long ago was referred to in the same terms as witchcraft in farming circles.

By differentiating their products in terms of provenance and quality they've been able to charge a little extra, while a more educated consumer has been willing to pay a little more for food grown closer to home and to higher quality standards (you may baulk at the like of Jamie Oliver on our screens but there's no doubt him and his ilk have woken you and me up to the food grown on our doorsteps).

Some farming companies have even managed to export their products and the enthusiasm with which Northern Ireland produce has been received means the door is open to another 20% rise in the farming sector output next year.

But there's plenty of work to be done if we're to be thought of in the same way as Scotland when it comes to beef or salmon, Wales when it comes to lamb and England when it comes to, er, Cornish pasties.

It's not a completely thorough analysis but you get the picture: marketing is key.