A Northern Ireland Soft Fruit Growers Association has been formed to support local producers expanding output to meet the rising demand for local produce. With local produce the time from farm to shop is minimal compared to imported fruit thus giving consumers a much fresher product with a longer shelf. The new NI Soft Fruit Growers Association (NISFGA) will represent the needs and interests of members as well as helping growers develop and improve their operations.
NI Soft Fruit Growers Association chairman Peter Donnelly of Dungannon is confident the ‘Love Local’ campaign will boost demand for fresh, high quality, strawberries, raspberries and gooseberries from local farms.
According to DARD the NI soft fruit sector’s output is valued at £700k per annum, which, although small in comparison to the apple dominated top fruit sector valued at £10mn per annum, shows great potential.
Soft fruit production is dominated by strawberries (184t) followed by raspberries (19.9t) and gooseberries (9t). In the RoI their soft fruit sector is worth €37 million according to Teagasc, the Irish Agriculture and Food Development Authority. The sector having grown by 190% over the past decade in the Republic demonstrates the increasing consumer demand for local soft fruit.
Strongly supported by the Dublin government growers in the RoI have invested heavily in the capital infrastructure needed to accommodate such growth. In Northern Ireland there is also an increasing demand for local produce as consumers are now more knowledgeable about the benefits of buying local in terms of quality and freshness.
NISFGA plan to promote their ‘Love Local’ campaign and offer a range of services to members. The Association is currently in consultation with growers and Government officials to determine the needs of the sector and how it can be supported. NISFGA aims to become the central knowledge base for producers by providing vital information on best practice techniques, industry updates and offering growers opportunities to avail of training courses, best practice visits and agronomy services. NISFGA will also organise regular meetings for members to come together to offer each other advice and support. ting difficulties.
This new Association for the soft fruit sector was born out of a project, supported by the Supply Chain Development Programme, where six growers met regularly to share information and advice. With government support and that of facilitator Valerie Brown the group was able to avail of best practice visits to strawberry farms in GB and the Netherlands. They also benefited greatly from attending training courses and having specialist agronomists visit their farms.
The impact of this support was incredible so these growers decided to establish the Association to co-ordinate and offer similar support to growers across the province on a permanent basis. Local strawberries are currently sold mainly in smaller independent greengrocers and convenience stores, but the Association plans to support growers seeking to do business with larger supermarkets.
Dungannon producer Peter Donnelly, Chairman of NISFGA, commented that “The learning we all experienced as a result of the supply chain programme was incredible. “We are a long way behind our counterparts in GB and the RoI in terms of investment and infrastructure, but with our new found knowledge we have now a clear roadmap of where this sector needs to go. Currently the market in NI is supplied mainly by imports, but the Association is confident that over the next 5-10 years we can grow our local industry to become a success story similar to that in the Republic.”