20 minutes with: Thia Hennessy of UCC on Ireland's food island image
Lorcan Allen speaks to Prof Thia Hennessy, dean of the Business School at University College Cork (UCC) on the future of CAP and the demand for graduates in the Irish food industry.

Are you confident in the future of the Irish agri food industry?

We’re seeing really high employment rates for students coming out of undergraduate level and postgraduate courses. Students are going to work for major agri-food processers in Ireland such as Musgraves, Kerry, Glanbia and Dairygold. Others are joining Bord Bia to work internationally.

Does Ireland have a strong reputation internationally for agri-food education?

Ireland has an image as a food island and we’re a big food exporter with a lot of Irish multinationals based in markets around the world. Irish food companies are interested in taking international students into their business because it gives them the opportunity to meet students from markets where they do business. If students are suitable, companies can employ them back in their home country.

Is Brexit having an impact?

Brexit has resulted in a lot of students that would have previously gone to the UK now coming to Ireland. Across the Irish universities, the number of international students has doubled over the last couple of years. It’s one of the few silver linings in the cloud of Brexit.

How do you see the next CAP evolving?

The biggest concern I would have is that we’re losing the common nature of the Common Agricultural Policy.

Once a policy becomes devolved, the next question might be why the budget isn’t devolved also.

The idea of allowing member states have more control over subsidy payments should be good for Ireland overall as we will have a policy designed for Ireland.

Will the next CAP be more environmentally focused?

It’s hard to say at this point because there’s such a long negotiation process and things can change so much but the words from the Commissioner have been pretty clear in the role of agriculture in protecting against climate change and supplying a safe, secure supply of food that has the minimum possible impact on the environment. I think the difference this time possibly is any environmental policies we have will be results-driven. So it won’t necessarily be payments for compliance or participation but it might be payments for actually delivering some sort of environmental good.

What does UCC offer in agri-food education?

The Bachelor of Commerce (BComm) from UCC’s business school has always had the option to specialise in food. We also offer a specialised food business degree in food marketing and entrepreneurship. UCC is currently at the advanced stages of developing an agricultural science undergraduate programme. We’re also starting a Masters in Science (MSc) in Food Business and Innovation, which will focus on emerging food business trends globally with a special focus on innovation. The second course starting this autumn is an MSc in co-operatives, agri-food and sustainability.

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20 minutes with Michael Finegan, Boyne Valley Cheese

Long read: six countries in seven weeks
Joe Lyng is a 2018 Nuffield scholar from Co Kilkenny, who recently spent seven weeks travelling to different countries around the world as part of the Nuffield Global Focus Programme (GFP).

So far my Nuffield travels have taken me to six countries, including the Netherlands, Ireland, US (Washington DC and California), Mexico, Brazil and New Zealand. Together, with nine other Nuffield scholars from different parts of the world, I visited numerous agricultural enterprises to gain a deeper understanding of global food production.

From a 6ha kiwifruit orchard in New Zealand to the largest privately owned farm in the world comprising 400,000ha of soya bean, maize, cotton and beef in Brazil, our group got an acquired taste for every type of agriculture.

The 2018 Nuffield GFP group visiting Terra Nova farms in California.

We spoke with politicians, policy makers, CEOs, NGOs, scientists, environmentalists, investment companies, co-ops as well as private and public organisations. Most importantly our group met with farmers.

When we think about the challenges facing the Irish primary producer, quite often we think of poor farmgate prices, labour shortages, succession, bad weather, land prices, managing debt as well as environmental regulations. The interesting thing is that these challenges are evident in every country we visited in some way shape or form. I imagine they are part of life for farmers in every country around the world.

For example, while in Brazil it was clear to see the country has the potential to export enormous volumes of commodities. However, the lack of infrastructure and export logistics in Brazil is frightening. It would not be uncommon for a grain truck to travel 3,000km to a port along the coast and have to wait four days to unload during the height of harvest.

Crippled

A feedlot in the US with the capacity to finish 120,000 head.
Tackling this problem might seem obvious but Brazilian politics is crippled to the point where it can take a government 10 years on average to make a decision. The average price of land in Brazil can be as much as €7,000/acre, where soils are extremely acidic and have little or no phosphorus. In order to comply with environmental regulations, Brazilian farmers must keep 20% of their under natural vegetation.

In the US, dairy farmers have been dealing with weak farmgate prices for the last 12 months, with the majority of farmers losing money. The attitude in the US seems to be get bigger to survive or get out. US farmers are also extremely concerned about the escalating trade tensions between the US and a number of its major trading partners such as Mexico and China.

Aside from the similarity of challenges we face, our GFP group also learned about some of the emerging trends that could potentially be opportunities for farmers in the future.

Farmers are the first link in a complex supply chain, which is coming under increasing pressure. Today’s consumer is more informed and health conscience with ample choice for food. More than ever, the end consumer is seeking food that draws on their emotions, looks great and taste fantastic. They want to know where their food comes from and how it’s produced.

Farmers telling their story might trigger the minds of some consumers but to me the majority of consumers will take it or leave it. What they do care about is themselves. What’s in it for me? Am I going to feel better? Is it healthier for me? What are the food bloggers/influencers saying about this product? Is it convenient?

These are all questions that seem irrelevant to a farmer milking cows, moving cattle or cutting corn but this is the reality of how modern consumers think.

Technology

Technology has become part and parcel of how we live our lives but also how we do business. Blockchain technology, which is used to record transactions across many computers so that the record cannot be altered, is at its infant stage in terms of the food supply chain.

However, from my travels I believe it is going to play a big part in the future of the food industry in order to reinforce tractability, demonstrate animal welfare and environmental standards, assure quality control regulations and show processor and retailer transparency. This technology will potentially allow consumers to choose the farms they wish to buy from based on their own belief systems and standards. Consumers will be able to track their purchase right through to their fridge.

So what does this mean for Irish farmers? Potentially the farmer and his/her practice becomes the focus allowing them to build relationships and reassure consumers around the globe at the click of a button.

Ireland has a huge opportunity in this regard as we already have premium food brands, high animal welfare and environmental standards on farms, the majority of which are family owned.

For the first time, the farmer will have the potential to create their own value. The next generation of tech-savvy consumers living in large urban hubs around the world might just love what we have to offer and be willing to pay for it.

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Farm loans now available from Co Cork credit unions
Four more credit unions have joined the Cultivate scheme to offer unsecured farm loans.

Mallow Credit Union, Mitchelstown Credit Union, Synergy Credit Union in Fermoy and Youghal Credit Union are the latest lenders to offer farm finance under the Cultivate brand.

Farmers can borrow up to €50,000 from them without putting up collateral. The variable interest rate is 6.75% APR and the repayment term up to seven years. The loans can fund cashflow and a range of investments such as livestock and machinery, but not the purchase of land.

The initiative began in Co Galway last year and has since been extended to several credit unions in Co Limerick and Co Clare.

Credit unions say they have issued more than €7m in Cultivate loans to farmers in the past 12 months.

Interested farmers are invited to the launch of the scheme in Co Cork in Corrin Mart, Fermoy, on Tuesday 19 June at 7.30pm.

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Could credit unions become major agri lenders?

New farming loan offer from credit union in the west