Last week, record crowds of well over 100,000 people turned up to Balmoral Show to witness everything that is good about rural Ireland in a purpose-built display centre that functions excellently. It’s well-positioned, well-serviced, well-managed and when the sun shines, it delivers an extra layer of happiness.

The show is centred around livestock and the other rural pursuits such as horse breeding.

However, primarily it’s a display for food, farming and agribusiness in the top half of the country. The accessibility of the show site means it is easier for someone from Meath to get to Balmoral than the RDS.

Over the course of the four days last week, we had the pleasure of holding ‘on the record’ conversations launching the most recent annual Future of Food magazine in association with KPMG. Participating were two large processors, one meat and one dairy, three large retailers, and a number of service companies that help farmers in business.

New markets

Dawn Meats boss Niall Browne extolled the value of grass-fed, the changing flavours required by consumers, and the new markets. He talked about the investment needed in Dawn’s recent acquisition – Kildare Chilling. Lakeland boss Colin Kelly again extolled the benefits of grass-fed milk, and the added value he seeks for the consumer in China who pays $7 for a coffee made with over 50% cream produced from Irish cows.

At Balmoral, Asda’s corporate manager Joe McDonald talked about the inflationary pressures on consumers who only have £112/week (€131) spending power, a statistic from Asda’s income tracker work in Northern Ireland. He said that is the income reality for those buying in some of the 900 Asda stores across the UK.

Over 300 of the 900 stores are recent additions to the Asda empire, mostly convenience stores in Britain alone.

All five successful businesses, Dawn Meats, Lakeland, and the three retailers, Dunnes Stores, Lidl and Asda, are on growth and value strategies.

The only businesses common to them all are farmers, the food producers, and they are the ones on a downward spiral.

Similarly, this week we see Ryanair grow profits, grow markets, and drive on the business. Any business that can’t grow volume and value is on the back foot. I’m not saying every farmer has to grow, but unless the option is there, how do you encourage young people in, how do you keep the narrative positive?

New initiatives

Think of the young people working in any of the businesses we mentioned above. They prosper on new developments, new initiatives, new markets and that’s how they grow and get promoted.

Compare that to what we are now saying to young farmers – hold, reduce stock, don’t invest, be happy with what you have. It simply won’t work.

Food and farming needs that injection of youth. We need that spurt of enthusiasm; we need that new idea to drive on the sector. We need those young people that flocked to Balmoral last week.

Of course farming is more than food – it’s biodiversity, it’s rural regeneration, it’s landscapes, it’s carbon sinks and farmers need to be rewarded for all that separately to the food produced. So let’s be clear, whether we think it’s right or wrong, the reality is – and we heard it from the successful businesses last week – the consumer is always right and cheap food will be on the menu. If the retailer is using a low price as the primary driver of footfall, then the processors gets squeezed on margin. Given the buying power of the multiples, this then means the primary producer gets what’s left.


The farmer, the food producer, must be rewarded some other way or they simply will go out of business. Currently in Ireland EU regulation is trumping any incentives farmers get. The benefits for producers are not targeted enough. The laws are not targeted enough. The small farmer with the rough grazing or the cows on grassland gets hit with the emissions reduction laws from their cows because of a natural process.

Meanwhile, the industrial or fossil fuel sectors are not proportionately taxed and continue to grow their volumes, value and profits at farmers’ expense.