Agriculture leads the way on exports as the demand for Irish food surges
FROM farmers' markets to the shelves of some of the world's swankiest foodhalls, the phenomenal success of the Irish food industry is providing an economic lifeline and boosting the fortunes of many family-owned firms.
Bord Bia yesterday announced record overseas sales of Irish food and drink, which rose to an all-time high of €8.85bn last year -- up 25pc, or nearly €2bn, since 2009.
Dairy and beef continue to lead the charge -- up by 15pc and 17pc respectively -- but there has also been an export surge in products ranging from Irish whiskey to organic salmon.
Soaring world food prices and a growing appetite for western products in Asia helped make the food industry one of the few shining lights of an otherwise depressed economy.
Among those at the forefront of Ireland's food exports are Valerie and Alan Kingston. They run Glenilen Farm in Drimoleague, west Cork, which makes farmhouse yoghurt, desserts and butter. In the past year, they have managed to get their products into various prestigious British outlets, ranging from Selfridges and Harvey Nichols in London to Tesco, Waitrose and Wholefoods.
Ms Kingston started using milk from their dairy farm to make homemade cheesecakes for a local market in 1997. Fast forward to 2012 and they employ 30 people, with annual sales topping €3.1m -- and UK sales already account for 9pc of total turnover.
According to Ms Kingston, the main selling points that keeps consumers coming back are taste and quality, rather than the product simply being Irish.
"Being preservative-free and additive-free is a huge selling point and the whole farmhouse idea appeals to a sense of nostalgia and purity that people like," she said.
The global rise of a middle class has had huge benefits for the Irish food industry and an increased Asian appetite for western meat and dairy products has been a major boost, said Bord Bia chief executive Aidan Cotter.
It has also had some unexpected spin-offs. For example, a growing demand for leather car seats contributed to a 40pc increase in hide prices last year, all of which helped push cattle and beef prices to Irish farmers to unprecedented levels.
The policy of getting Irish beef into premium supermarkets internationally, instead of the cheaper wholesale market, has also helped ensure the prices paid are ahead of the curve -- rising by 18pc, compared with a European average rise of just 10pc, Mr Cotter said.
Exports rose by €1bn last year and are up by €1.8bn since 2009. The result is a new enthusiasm in the food and agriculture industry, in which student numbers have soared by 27pc, he said.
Bord Bia is also keen to use Ireland's green image to sell even more beef and dairy products overseas and has measured the carbon footprint of 13,000 beef farms to back up claims that Ireland is more environmentally friendly than other countries.
The greenhouse-gas emissions of 500 farms a week are being checked and the aim is to have the world's first evidence-based system for marketing our green credentials, Mr Cotter explained. A worldwide marketing brand for Irish food will be launched in May, he added.
Meanwhile, exports of meat rose by 11pc last year to €2.8bn, which included €1.8bn worth of beef and €395m worth of pork. Dairy rose by 17pc to €2.7bn.
Sales of prepared foods, such as ready meals and chocolate, rose by 12pc to €1.5bn and seafood was up by 13pc, helped by strong sales of organic salmon.
Drink exports rose by 6pc to €1.2bn, helped by a double-digit increase for whiskey and strong sales of bottled water.
Surprisingly, Irish coffee exports also grew strongly, with Java Republic and Bewleys both selling roasted coffee to the UK.
Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney praised the "stellar performance" of the Irish food industry in capitalising on world food-price increases.