Last week I made my first trip to Northern Ireland.
It certainly didn’t disappoint, with a warm welcome, a great destination and a deep pride in its food and agriculture sector. As you leave Belfast International Airport there’s a food path celebrating the region’s produce – a stark contrast to my return journey home into Glasgow, where the first promotion I spotted was a tin of lager, which looked sadly outdated and off trend. Definitely a lost opportunity to influence visitors to our shores and promote and grow food tourism.
Northern Ireland exports around 90% of its produce into the UK and south into Ireland. The farmers I spoke to were very focused on their markets and were understandably extremely worried about the current Brexit uncertainty.
I had the privilege of speaking at the inaugural Ulster Farmers Union (UFU) Women in Agriculture conference, an event which had to be moved to a bigger venue due to the demand, and was sold out to more than 250 attendees.
Speakers included Hannah Jackson, the Red Shepherdess TV and internet star, and Mash Direct co-founder Tracy Hamilton, whose company last year turned over £18 million growing and processing vegetables.
A massive amount of time, effort and thought has been put in by the UFU in an unashamed drive to get more women recruited and involved with their work.
Their current membership is in excess of 11,000, with a good number of women on their board as well as chairing and serving on committees. But they’re not content with that, and want more women to get in the room, as they’ve clearly recognised the benefits of greater diversity and are drivers for change.
My experience in Ulster was a contrast to the local branch meeting and AGM of my NFUS area, which I also attended last week.
It became unbearable when the union’s vice-president told the audience that another diversified income source was “your wife’s salaried wages”. When challenged, he continued on with (what he admitted) was an inappropriate joke: “WWW doesn’t mean what you think, it stands for wind farms, windfalls and wife’s wages.” It was a stark reminder that, despite being present at the table, stereotypes still prevail in the form of sordid jokery.
With the greatest respect to the speaker, he seemed stuck on transmission mode when he needed to switch to receive.
There was lots of discussion on the challenges facing the beef sector, and excellent points raised from the floor on eating quality, and systems that are currently working in Australia and the US for identifying these traits, but I felt they were disregarded by the main speaker, who seemed determined to fixate on stocking densities and the lack of activity with “stick and dog farming”.
Changing our mindset and embracing breaking out of the box is what we must do to avoid being the stale tin of lager in the airport advert – outdated and off trend.