The tillage fields of Tullamore in Co Offaly will come alive over the next three days as the 86th national Ploughing Championships takes place. More than 280,000 people are expected to visit Europe's largest outdoor event in Screggan, with 1,700 exhibitors taking part. Over 350 competitors will also battle it out on the ploughing stakes.
Among the many organisations attending the Championships is Bord Bia, the state agency which promotes sales of Irish food and horticulture both abroad and in Ireland itself. Ireland exports €4.1 billion of food, drink and horticulture to the UK market representing 37% of the country's total exports. But the Irish food industry is facing additional challenges in the light of Brexit and currency movements. The Department of Agriculture recently allocated an additional €6.7m in funding to Bord Bia to deliver a market diversification programme for the country's agri-food industry.
Tara McCarthy, chief executive of Bord Bia, said that Brexit is the number one priority for the agency. When the Brexit vote occurred, the first reaction was an emergency response and then Bord Bia had to gather data to find out exactly where the pressure points were. Ms McCarthy said those pressure points are understanding the market, understanding the supply chain, helping companies on currency issues and building up a better understanding of exporters' customers.
Bord Bia worked very closely with the Department of Agriculture to decide where that funding could be best used and it was decided that "market prioritisation" should be the main area to look at. Pointing out that 37% of all Irish exports - €4.1 billion - go to the UK, Ms McCarthy said they had to look at other options for the food and drink industry. She said that Bord Bia had to find out - by sector - which markets best suit the various Irish products. The UK is the biggest market for Irish cheddar cheese and Ms McCarthy said that everyone realises that a new market for products can not be found overnight.
She also said that Bord Bia has to make sure that our UK customers know that we are not forgetting about them. The country's supply chain also needs to be maintained and Bord Bia has been working in partnership with Enterprise Ireland looking at competitive issues with the likes of the mushroom and pig meat industries.
Bord Bia is also helping companies with grant aid, especially those with a high dependancy on the UK. Tara McCarthy said the agency is helping companies go through this volatile period to ensure that they have some sort of cushion built in to their marketing. She said Bord Bia's "Brexit Barometer" - carried out in March - found that while a lot of companies had an ambition to grow into the UK market, they did not have a marketing strategy and did not have a marketing resource. Bord Bia is helping companies to build that marketing resource - both through grants and through market prioritisation initiatives.
Ms McCarthy said if a hard Brexit did happen, the worst case scenario would see tariffs being imposed on Irish exports to the UK, which would prove a huge blow to the Irish food industry. She said that Bord Bia is looking at all the possible scenarios, including opening new markets. To this end, Agriculture Minister Michael Creed will lead a trade mission to South Korea and Japan in November.
The sterling volatility is still central to everything as it continues to put a level of uncertainty into the markets and is making Irish companies less competitive when facing into the UK market, according to the Bord Bia CEO. She said that the 90 pence rate is making life very difficult for Irish exporters because trying to replace and renegotiate at that level when just a year ago it was at 72 pence shows the challenges Irish exporters are having to deal with.