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Conference confirms upbeat future for agri-food

Charlie Kerlin Charlie Kerlin

Despite the uncertainty of Brexit, there was a general growing expectation at the conference that farming and food in Northern Ireland can look forward to a bright future. This was one of the main conclusions that can be drawn from the recent AgendaNI Agribusiness conference in Craigavon.

This was illustrated by Dale Farm CEO Nick Whelan who indicated that the farmer-owned cooperative wants more milk from its producer members. This is a direct consequence of the strong signals coming from the dairy processors customer base throughout the UK that they need assurances of an enhanced product supply availability over the coming years. Lakeland Dairies’ CEO Michael Hanley delivered a similar message, albeit his sleepless nights are around the UK government’s future policy for the sector especially if this is focused on “cheap food”. GB remains a sizeable and profitable market for the sector across Ireland. Allowing cheaper imports certainly over the long term would make it less attractive, particularly in say beef and sheep meat.

One of the most significant contributions to the conference was that made by Northern Ireland Grain Trade Association (NIGTA) chief executive Robin Irvine, who confirmed that local feed compounders had just enjoyed a record year in terms of product throughput. He attributed this development to the resurgence of the fortunes experienced by dairy farmers in 2017 and the continuing growth of the poultry sector.

On what happened to be the day after the announcement of “no deal” at Stormont, representatives of all of our main political parties took the stand. It was clear that there is still no unified voice in relation to what is best for Northern Ireland agri-food going forward. This is a grave concern as we near crunch time of the negotiations. Our representatives on the agri-food advisory group to the UK government will have a pivotal role in helping secure an informed and practical solution for the sector.

Across the Grant Thornton client base we have seen businesses make changes to their plans to help mitigate potential Brexit risks. Clients trading in the Republic of Ireland have looked at investing across the border, partially due to border concerns but also driven by customer and supply base demands, particularly in distribution.

Our wider Grant Thornton advisory teams are continuing to assist our agri-food clients in making sense of the potential risks to their businesses under different deal scenarios. A recent Intertrade Ireland survey indicated that only 20% had discussed scenario planning despite the provision of Brexit vouchers to assist in securing that advice.

Some work yet to be done for all before March 2019!