Since we joined the EU – or Common Market, as it was called in 1973 – the historic Irish flour milling industry has effectively disappeared under a wave of imported flour from Britain. But with Brexit now a reality, part of the new regime is that flour imported from the UK, now a third country, is liable for a levy of €172/t.
This is by any standards a significant penalty, more than enough, I would have thought, to cancel out the slightly cheaper price of wheat as well as the very large economies of scale enjoyed by the large British millers, catering for a home market of 60m people.
At this stage in Ireland, we have a very small number of high-quality artisan-type flour producers – the only major modern mill at Portarlington carries the historic Odlum name, but was bought some years ago by Greencore. It makes very little flour and its main use seems to be as a packing plant transferring imported flour into consumer-sized bags.
The only major modern mill at Portarlington carries the historic Odlum name, but was bought some years ago by Greencore
Surely, there is some enterprising group out there who is, at least, willing to carry out a proper feasibility study on the viability of a new up-to-date Irish flour milling industry. The old companies of Odlums, Bolands, Ranks etc may no longer exist, but the basis for a new Irish flour milling industry clearly exits.
We have a growing population, home baking has undergone a resurgence and there is still a real technical capacity. Of course, there will be years when climatically we may have to import some hard wheat from France or North America to balance out some occasional deficiencies in Irish wheat, but these, with modern technology, can be easily overcome and there is no reason why we cannot have a proper national milling wheat breeding programme as we used have for malting barley.
We have a growing population, home baking has undergone a resurgence and there is still a real technical capacity
It’s not so long ago that I remember vividly driving tractors and trailers to the local mill and waiting anxiously for the details of bushel weight and Hagberg falling number, which determined the millability of the crop and the bonus I would receive. In those days, the Irish Flourmillers Association had a lovely old detached house in Ballsbridge in Dublin as their national headquarters. But enough of the past – let us look forward and assess logically the future potential in the light of Brexit developments.