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Emilia Romagna tops Italy’s food export league table representing 16% of the country’s total agri-food exports. The turnover of its agri-food sector is estimated to be worth €25 billion. A humid climate and rich, clay soil, supports 70,000 farms that produce enviable yields of fruit and vegetable crops, second only to its livestock sector in terms of production output. But as well as location and geographical advantages, what contributes to the agri-food power-house that is Emilia Romagna today? I visited the region as part of an agri-food and drink press tour organised by the European Network of Agricultural Journalists to find out...

Well firstly an entrepreneurial culture has produced a high percentage of self-employed and small businesses. Like Northern Ireland its private sector is dominated by SME’s. There are over 420,000 active enterprises, with an average size of approximately 4 employees and 90% of registered companies have fewer than 10 employees. This combines with a strong Co-Operative Movement that is part of the region’s DNA and political history.  Emilia Romagna is known as Italy’s ‘red belt’ due to successive communist and social democratic administrations that have governed there since the second world war. 778 co-operatives produce 60% of the turnover of its agri-food sector and they represent one third of all co-operative firms in the Italian agri-food system.

One Co-Operative success story is that of tomato processor ARP (Agricoltori Riuniti Piacentini). Optimum conditions mean E-R is the No.1 tomato-producing region in Italy, which in turn is the biggest tomato-producing country in the EU.  ARP was established in the 1950’s by 15 local farmers with the vision of “farming and transforming the fruits of the land of Piacenza and giving a more sustainable economic support to its local farmers.” ARP is processing 250,000 tonnes per year of ‘pomodori’ literally ‘golden apples.’ 74 farmers are now part of the Co-Operative which has become the biggest tomato producer and processor in Italy with a turnover of €57 million. 60% of its production output is destined for export markets across retail, food service and industrial/co-packing sectors. Customers include Aldi, Spar, Heinz, Dr Oetker...

On the eve of its Enterprise Week, the Bank of Ireland (BOI) UK hosted a breakfast seminar at its regional head office in Belfast for PR and media members of the Guild of Agricultural Journalists. The financial challenges for primary producers were top of the agenda.

Ian Sheppard, Regional Director Business & Corporate Banking Northern Ireland reaffirmed the Bank's commitment to the agri food sector in Northern Ireland. Alan Bridle, BOI UK Economist provided his analysis on the economic outlook for the year ahead and William Thompson, Head of Agri NI outlined the importance of financial planning in a volatile market place. Alan said the resilience of farming and agri-food in general will again be tested in 2016 as the sector continues to be buffeted by a combination of international market pressures and intense price competition at home. “The balance of purchasing power has tilted firmly in the direction of the consumer at the expense of the producer, reinforcing the relentless drive for greater efficiency and productivity.”

But he predicted some recovery in real incomes, “the regional economy should continue to post modest growth next year of between 1.0 and 1.5%, despite global headwinds for a number of our manufacturing exporters and the constraints on public spending. With the ECB contemplating additional monetary stimulus, there seems little prospect of significant relief on the euro exchange rate in the near term."

William Thompson (far left) added: “A combination of increased global supply, a weak euro, a reduction in exports to China, an extended Russian import ban and the abolition of EU milk quotas have all resulted in significant downward pressure on farm gate returns for many farmers.   To mitigate against these volatile market trends, the importance of business planning, tax planning and re-investment of farm profits over a 3 to 5-year period is vital to ensuring the long term viability of all farm businesses."

"Whilst the ongoing challenge for farmers or small food processors is to focus their efforts on aspects of their business within their control and strive to increase margins through technical efficiency, the long term sustainability of many businesses, particularly dairy enterprises, will...

The story goes that back in the day of the Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi, with the sale of one prized ham called ‘Culatello di Zibello’, a farmer could purchase another pig. Culatello di Zibello, is a cured cold cut from Emilia Romagna. It has been eaten for centuries and is still revered by Italians today. Yet it is another cold cut brand from the same region, Prosciutto di Parma that people more immediately recognise as the premium Italian pork export. So I left Belfast as part of a group of European Agricultural Journalists to find out more and what I uncovered was one of the best and most original food PR stories I had ever encountered...

Culatello di Zibello is made using from the choicest part of the upper thigh of a pig’s hind leg. It gets its name from the rather irreverent Italian word meaning ‘little ass’. But there is nothing base about its taste or price. Such is the niche appeal that a 36 month Culatello di Zibello can fetch up to 90 Euros per kilogramme with a whole one weighing only 3-4 kg.The cachet of Culatello di Zibello for discerning Italians, as well as a growing number of today’s top chefs and gourmands means they prepared to pay a super-premium price to have a reserved name tag placed on a custom-aged Culatello curing in the cellars of one particular farmer-producer, Massimo Spigaroli. I was able to see Spigaroli’s A-list of customers for myself when I visited his farm recently as part of a group of European Agricultural Journalists. Alongside Armani, Bulgari and Prince Albert of Monaco, Signor Spigaroli’s Estate Manager, Giovanni Lucchi confirmed that even Prince Charles has sent his own Large Black and Tamworth pig haunches to be cured in Spigaroli’s cellars having summoned the chef to Buckingham Palace to enquire how it was made.

In fact this product has all the ingredients of a PR food story par excellence. So what is so great about this product and its producer? Well apart from also being a Michelin Star chef, Massimo Spigaroli is one of a select few farmers situated in the humid lowlands surrounding the River Po who has secured protected EU PDO classification (Protected Designation of Origin) for their ‘Culatello di Zibello’. Spigaroli produces 4,000-5,000 Cullatelli di Zibello PDO per year with an...

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