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By Horticulture

Because Northern Ireland has such a mild and lush climate a wide variety of horticultural products can be grown all year round. Horticulture is the science behind improving human life through plants and growing them.

Horticulture is much more than hanging baskets and packets of seeds. Horticulture is about growing many of the foods we eat and also creating spaces for leisure and enjoyment both at home and in the parks and public spaces around us.

Horticulture makes up a good percentage of the Northern Irish economy and according to the Northern Irish Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) horticultural products are £108m the farm gate.

Once these horticultural products are purchased and process a further £314m of value is created. This has been very much overlooked by many politicians and civil servants and the farm gate prices alone are four times that of fishing which in 2015 landed £20.8M. After beef, dairy, poultry and pigs, horticulture is fifth in terms of gross output and yet horticulture is very much overlooked by DAERA.

Organisations such as The Horticulture Forum for Northern Ireland are working hard to change the perception of the industry. Open the eyes of politicians, civil servants as well as the public to the importance of horticulture is a task that is very much needed. However, despite this Horticulture still lacks the respect it deserves with many believing, incorrectly, that the industry is fully represented by the likes of the Ulster Farmers Union (UFU) and the Northern Ireland Agricultural Producers’ Association (NIAPA). Because of this, the horticulture forum for Northern Ireland was NOT invited to send representation to Brexit Stake Holders Group.  The voice of Horticulture is not heard and thus jobs could be at stake.

However, in some areas, the view of horticulture is changing, and its importance is being understood. The horticulture forum was asked to speak to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee in Westminster and they also visited Northern Ireland in July 2018 to speak to growers and farmers. It became clear that there is a greater need for support and investment in technology to boost and sustain the industry.

The view of Brexit from a horticulture point of view is clear. Trade with the Republic of Ireland is fluid with products grown in Northern Ireland sent over the border for processing and then returned for sale. The high plant health standards maintained in Northern Ireland make this extremely viable and this is one the major trade drivers. Placing a “hard border” in place would, therefore, cripple many small horticulture businesses who thrive on the current open border that is very much their sole source of trade. Furthermore, the cut flower industry is a boom industry that could also feel the same squeeze once hard and harder borders are put in place.

With an investment in technology the flower growing industry in Northern Ireland could see a significant boom with cost savings for customers such as supermarkets. Fresh flowers from Northern Ireland would last longer and they do not travel as far and this opens up many post-Brexit opportunities that despite the potential barriers to trade can still exist.

The mushroom industry in Northern Ireland is another success story with the Northway Mushroom Producer Organisation leading the way. It is an EU funded organisation that has seen significant growth and many full-time and part-time skilled and less-skilled jobs created. Access to skilled labour, not only in the Mushroom industry and a challenge that horticulture is finding due to it being a labour intensive sector. With the Pound being devalued against the Euro access to labour is further restricted as the EU workers who send money home find the Pound less valuable.

Central and Eastern Europe have invested heavily in horticulture, especially in the mushroom industry, and these people do not need to travel to the UK to find work. This demonstrates the need for greater industry recognition and investment.

The contribution horticulture makes in lifestyle improve and the health and wellbeing of people are almost completely ignored. However, it is estimated that lifestyle horticulture such as golf and tourism contribute around £405m in Northern Ireland alone. Horticulture goes well beyond hanging baskets and Brexits has a host of pro’s and con’s that can all be addressed provided the industry gets the respect it deserves.

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