Belfast Telegraph

UK farmers 'absolutely' stand to benefit from Brexit

British farmers stand to benefit from Brexit with the soaring cost of imports set to see retailers and consumers turn to home-grown produce, but concerns over the status of EU workers continue to linger over the industry.

Jack Hamilton, director of pre-pack vegetable business Mash Direct, told the Press Association that UK farmers "absolutely" stand to benefit after the June 23 vote sent the pound down and the cost of imports up.

But he also said that the decision to quit the EU has prompted questions over the source of store-bought groceries.

"In the food service industry, the provenance conversation certainly came up after the foreign exchange conversation. And in the UK we still import a lot of our vegetables, which is crazy when we produce such high quality vegetables here," he said.

"With Brexit, it's making people question things a lot more than they used to and all of that is a positive if you're a UK farmer.

"If you're producing the stuff here, you can really go out and really shout about it, and people want to listen."

The Northern Ireland-based firm grows and packs ready-cook veg including mashed potatoes, red cabbage and beetroot, cauliflower cheese and seasonal Brussels sprouts from its farms in County Down.

Mr Hamilton said that incidents like "Marmitegate" have effectively sparked a national conversation about where British food is coming from.

The spat between Tesco and Unilever erupted in October, when the supermarket reportedly refused to bow to a 10% wholesale price rise to offset a drop in sterling, which at the time had fallen nearly 20% against the dollar and 15% against the euro.

Tesco briefly withdrew cupboard staples including Marmite and PG Tips from shelves before Unilever announced that the dispute had been "successfully resolved".

Later, former deputy prime minister Nick Clegg warned of further price hikes if the UK pursues a so-called hard Brexit, which could usher in "whopping" tariffs on imported foods if the UK left the European single market.

"All of this stuff is happening now, and certainly retailers are wanting to talk about it, food services are wanting to talk about it all, it's all creating conversations we want to have," Mr Hamilton said.

"Certainly 'brand Britain' is a much bigger deal than it was 12 months ago."

The family-run business was founded by Mr Hamilton's father, Martin, in 2004 and has been growing steadily since. It now boasts a string of heavy-hitter clients including Ocado, Tesco, Asda, Iceland and Nisa.

It also supplies Sainsbury's in Scotland and Northern Ireland, and is set to launch in Morrisons' English and Scottish stores in 2017.

Mr Hamilton expects full-year revenues to have reached £15 million once annual accounts close in February, up from £14.2 million last year and £12.4 million in 2014.

But Mash Direct is one of a number of farms that may have to grapple with employee shortages if EU nationals lose their right to work in the UK as a result of Brexit.

Nearly a third of the company's 180-strong workforce are foreign nationals.

"At this stage we don't know what the impact of labour will be... We wouldn't be as exposed as many farms would, but we will have to wait and see what the outcome will be."

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