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A market-driven approach to rural regeneration

Simply, we believe that integral to rural regeneration and the projects created to support such an aim should be the creation of viable-from-all-perspectives, sustainable rural businesses. Amongst these will be family-farms, localized food processing and related tourism and leisure activities.

 

A concern we have is that many regions are over-reliant on government and/or European Union funded support payments. They have become an expected part of the incomes of farming and local communities. One can also argue that others in the supply-chain have also factored them into farm-gate prices so they are, in effect, subsidizing those beyond the farm-gate. True, it could also be argued that they are subsidizing farms which are too small and economically inefficient.

 

In the case of the Irish family-farm, they are either too small or the price they receive is too low or both. One or other has to change. With an entrenched farmland structure, one would argue that the focus has to be on farm-gate prices and increasing the value of such. Unfortunately Ireland has a history of commodity production and that situation has actually been reinforced by recent national agri-food policy. That has to change and its emphasis placed upon family farm incomes and locally producing food products that can directly and upwardly influence farm-gate prices.

 

Whilst, there is a long history of support payments they are vulnerable to change. The tax-paying public will also wish to see more transparency over what their return is for these on-going payments. They will want to see them more clearly defined as payments for services provided.

 

Our emphasis is, therefore, to focus on food product creation. It is about selling products with a recognised origin and characteristics that are linked to the concerns of the issues-aware buying-public. It is about deriving income from these food products and seeing all other payments as supplementary to income from farm [and local-processing sales]. It is about developing a greater degree of market-derived financial sustainability for family farms than is often currently the case.

Driving rural development by selling food products

To summarize, at the core of rural regeneration should be the creation and sale of products whereby the value-added is either created on-farm or in the local community. It should be about using the natural resources of the region and local people to create something that is unique and readily identifiable as from that region. It is a product that has unique selling points and that can also be legally protected to stop imitation by others [think Mozzarella di Bufala; a unique, protected-origin, fresh buffalo-milk cheese that originally evolved from rural development activity around Naples]. It is then about building cost-effective routes to consumer markets that can make producing the product financially viable for its producers, farmer-suppliers and local communities.

Reconnecting the farmer to the food consumer

In recent decades the farmer has become isolated from the consumer. It is an isolation that has accelerated with the development and then dominance of the supermarket food-retailing model. The trading disparity within the food supply chain has moved massively in favour of the few, often-now, multi-national retailers [and in Ireland the fewer processors]. As a consequence the proportion of the retail price that the farmer receives has been squeezed by supply-chain partners seeking to generate profits. Thankfully, there now appears to be a re-emerging desire to buy local and to buy direct; thus obtaining greater assurance about the product’s origins and how it is produced. The question is how can Irish family farm tap into this new consumer desire?

 

Farmers’ markets were an early response to 'buy local'. Some supermarket chains are also getting onto the band wagon and sourcing and promoting local. In the United Kingdom [with its high population density] there has been the evolution of the farm shop from a simple stall or shed to sophisticated retail environment. There are many initiatives that are happening at local level but there still remains the challenge of how to get high-quality, artisan-type, products from smaller producers in remote-to-market locations to the consumer. Local sales is simply insufficient and these producers to export out of their locality, region or country. This is a particular problem in Ireland and it is an issue that the Foundation intends to address over the coming years.

The role of product quality and origin designations

An important concept when developing premium products is encapsulated within the designated systems of production as per the French appellation d'origine contrôlée (AOC) system. There is now also the EU-wide designated origin system. At national and EU levels, these are imperative to the protection of any unique selling points attributable to recognized-as-premium food products.

 

To place the use of designated-origin system into context, for fresh meat products France has 68 EU-registered products, Spain 16 and the UK eleven. Ireland has just one, Connemara Hill lamb.

 

A designated quality and origin marque can be a valuable marketing tool. It can, however, go much further in that it 'locks in' farming and processing practices that can be important values in the context of communicating with an issues-aware, possibly premium-paying customer. These practices can provide environmental benefits [i.e. by stipulating certain grazing practices] or animal welfare benefits [i.e. by insisting upon local slaughter [which may also enhance quality]].

 

An example is the appellation d'origine contrôlée ‘Bœuf de Charolles’. The AOC requires that pure-bred calves are suckler reared. They must then see at least three grazing seasons. The AOC also requires the preservation of the local hedgerow-lined pastures [the bocage] and their biodiversity and fattening has to occur on specified pastures. In winter local-sourced hay is fed but no silages. The use of complementary feeds are limited and the use of GM feed is forbidden.

Employing a high-value-market-orientated approach

There are two choices when faced with having to export produce out of a remote-to-market region. The first is to produce volume and to gain economies of scale with respect to shipping. An example of the latter is South America with its 50-60,000 tonne ‘Panamax’ shipments of soybean. This, however, requires the transport infrastructure and the ability to scale up agricultural production to match the chosen sales and distribution channel. This is frequently not the case for many remote-to-market regions. One could argue that Ireland is actually in this latter category.

 

It is imperative for producers in remote regions without the scale to produce commodities, to develop alternative products and the routes to market to reach premium-paying consumers. This is most likely to mean focusing on the development of premium, high-value products with a high-value to shipping-cost ratio. It is about producing [and possibly creating] premium multi-characteristics products that the top-of-the-market consumers want and are willing to pay for.

 

In an era where 'local' is becoming an important issue for the aforementioned consumers, an export-dependent food nation has an inherent disadvantage. In this situation if then becomes even more important that a strong, all-about-its-origin, unique and traceable story accompanies the product all the way through to the point of sale and the final interface with the end consumer.

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