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2017 to be a ‘defining year for NI agri-food sector’

Storm Doris didn’t deter me from the prospect of a posh Ulster Fry breakfast at James Street South Restaurant and the opportunity to hear Danske Bank’s annual agri-economy outlook.

The bank’s Head of Agribusiness, Robert McCullough and its new Economist, Conor Lambe (apt name for the occasion) painted a mixed picture for a packed room of members of the Guild of Agricultural Journalists about what life could be like for our agri-food sector post-Brexit. With 1 Million Euro of cross trade done every hour of every day and 30% of our milk output travelling south the stakes are high when the UK government does deals on trade tariffs and the movement of people, goods & services. “The end of direct support payments” is a key concern, said Robert, who is a beef farmer himself, “but on the upside the exchange rate makes our food exports competitive. With 65 million mouths to feed in the UK there are opportunities to be grasped.”

The bank is encouraging its agriculture customers, like any other business, to develop a ‘can do’ attitude and embrace change by getting better at what they do well and focusing in on what’s working; as well diversifying to deliver alternative income streams as required.

Following on, Conor Lamb wasn’t any more optimistic. He pointed to volatility ahead and issues with the NI economy that pre-date the Brexit referendum such as the lowest levels of economic activity and productivity in the UK. With rising input costs resulting in price increases he also foresees an impact on consumer spending power. Overall a prediction of a feeble 0.3% growth in the agri sector in 2017 and 0.2% in 2018. Not much to celebrate - yet at least - for those who are ‘Just About Managing’ already then.