The emergence of the sector, supported by growing consumer demand for niche products and a strong entrepreneurial spirit, has generated many new small food companies.
Most are owner-managed, frequently have a farming basis, and produce diverse products, with high potential for innovation.
Artisan food also has potential to attract visitors and tourists as evidenced at Bloom and many food festivals.
One of those events is the Racing Home to Mallow Festival, which will be held in the Co Cork town over the Easter Weekend.
It features three days of racing at Cork Racecourse, where fashion model Vogue Williams will judge the most stylish lady and gent on Easter Sunday and where the 1916 Rising will be commemorated the following day.
But the festive events at the racecourse are also linked with the town itself where a wide range of activities will include an artisan food and craft fair at Mallow Castle, now owned by Cork County Council, on Easter Sunday (9am to 2pm), with nearly 70 stalls.
It is fitting that the festival organisers headed by Mary Kelly, chairperson, should provide a shop window for speciality food producers.
Mallow was after all a diverse food town during much of the last century, milk, sugar beet and vegetables were processed for domestic and global markets, employing hundreds of people in the manufacturing and service sectors.
Sadly, the Sugar Factory and the Erin Foods plants, strong pillars of the town’s industrial base, are long since closed but dairy manufacturing continues and is poised for long term growth.
Dairygold, a farmer owned co-op, created through the merger of two existing societies, Ballyclough (formed in 1908) and Mitchelstown (formed in 1919), is maintaining that tradition of quality dairy food production.
The co-op’s regenerated site in Mallow has a history of milk processing dating back to 1928. It was home at one stage to three separate food businesses, all of them adding value to the dairy product being produced on-site by Ballyclough Co-op.
These businesses, long since closed, were the Rowntree Mackintosh chocolate crumb factory, which later became part of Nestle, Borden’s and Cow and Gate.
Today, the skills of producing quality food products is being maintained not just by Dairygold with its modern technology and global reach, but also by many artisan and speciality businesses that have been developed in the region.
Nationally, the artisan sector includes over 50 farmhouse cheese-makers producing more than 150 types of product valued at over €12 million per annum at farm gate level.
However, Holland, the size of Munster, has over 100 cheese producers while New Zealand has more than 2,000 speciality food producers. It would, thus, seem the market is far from saturated.
Following the abolition of milk quotas, farmhouse and speciality cheese output could increase to just over 4,500 tonnes per annum worth around €33 million without requiring significant additional capital expenditure.
Agriculture, Food and Marine Minister Simon Coveney said recently the overall growth prospects for the sector are positive.
These are driven by increased consumer interest in the provenance of food, environmental concerns, health and a desire to support the local economy Indeed, the growth of farmer’s markets here has also been quite extraordinary. They have developed from fewer than 100 in 2006 to almost 150 at present.
They have a turnover in excess of €10 million a year and they also reflect the diversity of products, changing lifestyles and agricultural environment.
Bord Bia chief executive Aidan Cotter says these markets are a source of entrepreneurship, social exchange, local character and diverse foods, while also providing valuable income to producers.
“They are an extremely important route to market for Irish food producers, particularly those at start-up stage. Markets allow for invaluable direct contact with consumers to trial and validate new products and our research found that 80% of traders considered them to be their key sales channel,” he said.
Bord Bia research shows that Irish consumers place great importance on sourcing food locally, with seven in ten adults reflecting this desire when shopping.
There is also an increasing sophistication among Irish consumers, who are more discerning, knowledgeable and confident about the quality and provenance of locally produced food.
Consumers say they wish to sustain their local community. Markets such as the Easter Sunday event in Mallow is an example of how they can do so.
Research also reveals that some 82% of consumers are now keenly aware of the term “food miles” and the impact that has on the food they purchase.
In an introduction to the latest Bord Bia Guide to Food Markets, Mr Cotter notes that they provide a unique forum for suppliers to interact directly with their customers.
In doing so, they are in a position to provide assurances on provenance, traceability and sustainability that are extremely attractive to consumers.
“Bord Bia recognises the value food markets can play as a route to market for many dedicated and committed Irish food producers.
“They are important to those for whom smaller-scale artisan food production is a passion and those who recognise in food markets a testing ground for ideas that may ultimately be scaled up.
“They are sources of entrepreneurship and social exchange, and they are funds in which local traditions and diversity can be replenished and renewed.
“Notably, too, they provide valuable income for producers and keep wealth circulating in local economies,” he says.
The food fair at Mallow Castle next Sunday will reflect those realities. According to organiser Sarah McMahon, it will be a truly artisan event — and a feast for the senses.