'Producers and suppliers have been a lifeline' says farmer Best
PUBLIC support is vital if farmers and producers in the north are to continue to thrive, former Ireland rugby captain Rory Best believes.
The recently retired Ireland and Ulster player has swapped the rugby pitch for the fourth-generation family farm he runs in Poyntzpass with dad John and brother Simon.
And the mixed arable and beef farm is among those taking part in the Bank of Ireland Open Farm Weekend from Friday July 31 to Sunday August 2, which this year will take place online.
Speaking of the importance of such events, Best said: “In the past there's been a bit of a disconnect between the people who are buying the products and those who are producing them, and the Open Farm Weekend has always been a real opportunity to help bridge that gap.
“Farming can be a very solitary job. so the likes of this initiative helps to create a feeling of community. I'm delighted the event is able to go ahead, even in a virtual format. I think it sums up the agri-food industry at the minute; you've got to be able to think fast and roll with the punches.”
As Ireland's most capped forward Rory is no stranger to pressure, but it is since retiring from professional sport last year that he has faced some of his biggest challenges. Brexit and Covid-19 have thrown up many uncertainties for Northern Ireland's agri-food industry but the father of three hopes they have also helped to highlight the importance of the sector.
“For many households our local producers and local suppliers have been a lifeline,” he says.
“With what we've gone through recently, there's definitely a greater appreciation for how important it is to have locally produced food readily available.
“I'm obviously biased, but I think more and more people are now realising that there are so many superior tasting goods from in and around Northern Ireland and it's vital to show how much, time, effort and pride the farmers and producers around the country put into their produce.”
Growing up, conversations around the family dinner table tended to revolve around rugby and farming, and Best admits not much has changed.
“Being raised on a farm gives you an interest in where your food comes from versus where other food comes from and that helps when you go into professional sport. Over my career I've seen a lot of fads come and go but I've always been about food first rather than shakes and supplements.
“I think as parents we have a responsibility to educate our kids about the food they're eating rather than just setting it on the table.”
Rory fears that, in the wake of the Agriculture Bill, if more is not done to protect the farming and food sectors in Northern Ireland from cheaper international imports then knowing where our food has come from – and what's gone into it – may be a thing of the past.
“The worry within agriculture is if trade deals with other countries, such as the US, happen then we will have produce in Northern Ireland that doesn't follow the strict protocols we have here.
“It's up to people to take an interest in what they're buying and eating, which again is why events like Open Farm Weekend are invaluable.”
While both Best brothers pursued professional rugby careers, they both knew they'd eventually gravitate back to farming, a choice Rory realises they were lucky to have.
“It's getting harder and harder to encourage young people to get into farming,” he says.
“There are so many other opportunities out there and a lot of them are more profitable and a lot less work.
“That's why it's so important that the support is there to make sure farming is a viable business and the only way for that to happen is by supporting local producers and making sure they can make enough money to stay involved.
“It can't be a labour of love with no profit or our young men and women will just opt for a 9-5 and a steady wage and we'll be left with fewer farmers and in turn less produce.”