Last week we took a look at some of the highlights of the 2022 farming calendar. This week we are looking at some of the more serious events that took place and the issues that they raised.
At the start of 2022 Food & Farming spoke to Ean Parsons and Murray Cringle who had just been elected president and vice president respectively of the Manx NFU. One of their biggest concerns for the year ahead was the rise in input costs - feed and fertiliser - for farmers.
Murray said: ‘I would argue that food prices have to go up, it’s as simple as that, and they will go up, but we can’t immediately pass that on and that’s where I can see that there’s going to be a minimum 12 months of quite severe pain [for farmers].’
Ean added: ‘We’ve got used to it being a global market but, going forward, there’s going to have to be taxes on transport because transportation, especially worldwide transportation, is directly responsible for an element of climate change.’
At the beginning of 2022, Clare Barber was also new to her role as DEFA Minister and she vowed to make food security a priority.
She said at the time: ‘I think food security has really come to the fore through Covid, and we have issues with the weather every year.
‘So I’m very glad that part of the Island Plan, and it also features in our departmental plan, is a strategy for agriculture and a strategy for food production.’
As it turned out, all three were completely right about prices - whether that be farmers’ input prices or food prices in the shops - they have been a major issue over the last 12 months, as has food security.
The latter has been brought very much to the fore, not only by world events during 2022, but by events closer to home.
When it comes to food security, the island has three strategic assets: the Meat Plant, Isle of Man Creamery and Laxey Glen Mill, and last year saw major events affecting two of them.
In April, Ramsey Bakery closed its doors for the last time, an event which had huge implications for the food and farming sector on the island.
The company had been taking around 80% of the flour produced by the Mill and the loss of such a major customer had the potential to affect its future viability, and posed some serious problems for the farmers who were contracted to grow milling wheat for the Mill.
It was understood at the time that the mill had already got in stock two years’ supply of wheat at their present rate of consumption so they were unlikely to need any more in the foreseeable future.
This left their contracted farmers with the problem of what - if anything - they should be planting for 2023.
By the end of August when planting was due to begin, the situation still hadn’t been resolved.
We spoke to David Brew, who had been growing around a quarter of the mill’s total annual wheat intake, and he told us: ‘The situation is that we are contracted to grow milling wheat for Laxey Glen Mills but they have indicated to all the contractors growing for them that they can’t purchase any of the wheat.
‘There are ongoing talks between the Manx NFU and DEFA but at the moment I don’t think a conclusion has been reached.’
Will McMillin, the largest grower for the Mill, said: ‘It’s a big problem at the moment, trying to find a market for something that we can grow and the powers that be don’t seem to understand the time element.
‘I don’t think people understand the gravity of the situation.’
Any threat to the Mill also has an impact on the smaller artisan bakeries. These bakeries, including Noa and Ross, also use flour from the Mill: the quality of their product and their brand identity is built around supplying premium loaves using local ingredients.
Miles Pettit, owner of Noa Bakery, spoke of his sadness at the closure of Ramsey Bakery as a vital link in the supply chain. He said: ‘I’ve never wanted to compete with Ramsey Bakery: I respected them in the marketplace and we’ve always been different.
‘We’re very respectful for a business that’s been on the island for 50 years: they’ve done some great things for the Isle of Man.
‘Noa is still passionate about using local, working with the farmers, and working with the Mill in whichever shape or form this now happens and I guess the jury’s out on what this now means.’
Miles was talking more generally about the future of Laxey Glen Mills which is housed in a building which is large and increasingly expensive to maintain.
With this in mind there has been a plan in the DEFA pipeline for more than a year to build a new, smaller and more modern building to house the milling operation.
We will soon discover exactly what the plans for the Mill are as DEFA is currently finalising its position, based on the report commissioned by the Mill, and expects to publish its policy position on the future of the Mill in the first quarter of this year.
Then, in November, came the publication of the Meat Plant audit and the subsequent resignation of its manager, Phil Parsons.
The Meat Plant is crucial to the farming sector on the island, where our climate is ideally suited to the growing of grass to rear livestock and produce quality meat.
Having an island-based abbattoir is equally important – no farmer wants to send their animals across for slaughter if they can help it.
From a welfare point of view, this is something no farmer likes to do and it has no financial benefit either.
Ronague farmer, Kevin Coole, posted on Facebook at the time: ‘This was brought home to a wider audience on the island by a post on Facebook on Saturday from Ronague farmer Kevin Coole.
He wrote: ‘Today we exported a quantity of quality finished beef cattle off the island. This is a first for us having never shipped before but unfortunately we were left with no other option.
‘I can’t help thinking are we facing another failing “strategic asset” in our own Meat Plant? It feels particularly wrong having to do this during a cost of living crisis.’
And Kevin’s father Maurice told Food & Farming: ‘We have always been supporters of the Meat Plant.
We didn’t want to send our cattle away but we had no choice: we would have been left with them here over the winter.’
The Cooles were expressing how the problems the Meat Plant report had highlighted were affecting farmers on the ground.
The report had concluded that one of the main and ongoing issues has been a serious shortage of staff to deal with the animals coming into the plant.
So while the plant has plenty of high quality, finished stock booked in there are simply not enough people to process them and this means that farmers could not move them off the farms and could mnot get paid for the culmination of many months’ work.
The Meat Plant report also indicated a need to review and improve the sales model, increase the throughput of the plant through operational efficiencies and improve training for employees.
In response, Mrs Barber moved quickly to put in place interim payments for farmers whose stock had been booked in but had been left waiting for the Meat Plant to take them. She also took over as chair of the board of the Meat Plant.
She said: ‘A functioning meat plant performs a pivotal role at the centre of both Manx agriculture and the island’s strategic food security policy, so I welcome the report and look forward to addressing the challenges with the board.’
Food and Farming understands that the appointment of a new manager for the Meat Plant is also imminent.
To sum up 2022, it has certainly not been the easiest year for the food and farming sector.
Let’s hope that 2023 brings an improvement.