STEM Futures – Agri-food

STEM Futures: Agri-food

The Agri-food sector is of vital importance to the Northern Ireland (NI) economy, now and in the future. For many years it has been one of the primary drivers of our economy providing many jobs and entrepreneurship opportunities. The future of the agri-food sector looks promising!

Explore Agri-food further, including its future opportunities here...

Fivemiletown Creamery

For over a century Fivemiletown Creamery has sat nestled in the farmland of County Tyrone. With a longstanding history in butter and milk production, the company’s primary focus these days is on making cheese.

Fivemiletown is a cooperative-owned dairy society. This means that it’s owned by the farmers who provide it with milk. Known for its quality, and with many awards and recognitions for its cheeses, Fivemiletown takes great pride in using local milk to produce local cheese. Its products are so well received that today it markets them throughout the UK and Ireland as well as exports them to the US, Denmark, France and the Far East.

Fivemiletown Creamery Testing and Production

Every year in the UK, the average person eats over five kilograms of cheese, and we make over three-hundred-thousand tonnes of the stuff. So let’s look at how cheese is produced.

I bet you didn’t know that cheese is a living product. It relies on bacteria, fungi and moulds to give it its flavour and texture. These microbes are crucial in cheesemaking. Without them, we wouldn’t have stilton and other blue cheeses, and brie would lack its distinctive, flavoursome rind.

Fivemiletown Creamery Technology and Innovation

Separating the curds and whey is one of the most important parts of the cheesemaking process. Long ago producers would have separated curds from whey by draining the mixture in baskets and applying weights to force the whey through.  But today, technology plays a key role in its manufacture, allowing steps to be controlled down to the most minute detail.

For example, technology lets the producer control the temperature in the vats, how quickly the mixture heats or cools, what size curds are cut to and so on. Minor changes in these settings could have a big affect on the quality of the cheese. But this automation eliminates human error and inconsistency so makers can produce identical products over and over and provide the consumer with reliable quality.

Fivemiletown Creamery Packaging and Labelling

When packaging products that will be eaten, a manufacturer has to choose their materials carefully. If they use a style of packaging that will touch the food, like a plastic wrap or paper wrap, the law says that that material must be approved for direct-food-contact. Packaging that wraps just one item is called primary packaging.

They also have to think about whether the product is going on supermarket shelves. If so, then it needs secondary packaging – packaging that groups lots of items together. Fivemiletown has designed a convenient carton for shops. You simply tear off the front, slot the carton onto the shelf, and up to twelve packets of cheese are displayed at once.

John Thompson & Sons

In 1880, John Thompson and his sons opened an animal feed mill in Belfast. Over a century later, it’s the largest mill site in the UK, employing 170 staff and producing a wide range of feeds for poultry, cows, sheep, horses and pigs. Working closely with regional companies as well as local farmers, John Thompson & Sons manufactures hundreds of products, including quality feeds, bespoke feeds, fertilisers, silage additives and grass seed. Known throughout the agri-food industry as Pioneers of Better Feedingstuffs, the company invests heavily in scientific research, product development and technological advancements – making STEM central to its success.

John Thompson & Sons Testing and Production

These days it seems that a lot of attention is placed on diet and nutrition – both the good and the bad. But where does good nutrition begin?

Well if you’ve learned about food chains, then you’ll know that You Are, literally, What You Eat. So the goodness of every sausage we enjoy and every yoghurt we have at lunch depends on the health of the pig and cow that provided the pork and milk.  What did they eat, and was it healthy? Their nutrition affects our nutrition, and animal nutrition is big business.

John Thompson & Sons Innovation

In the agrifood industry, scientific research and data is essential for developing new products and making important decisions. At John Thompson’s and Sons, research helps them produce nutritious, fit-for-purpose animal feed that meets farmers’ needs. They also work closely with independent bodies like the College of Agriculture, Farming and Rural Environment and the Agricultural Food and Biosciences Institute to understand what’s changing in the industry and how they can help farmers meet those new challenges.  Working together, scientists, agronomists and animal nutritionists develop, test and evaluate new feed formulas before they’re sold.

With research comes innovation. Innovate means to introduce something new or different. Innovation is hard. It requires problem-solving, setting new goals, and trying new ways of doing things. There’ll always be times when a new idea doesn’t work, but scientists simply keep experimenting until they find answers to their questions.

John Thompson & Sons Packaging and Labelling

When you visit John Thompson & Son’s, you can see it’s a big building – eight stories high!  But inside, it’s surprising how empty it looks. The only time you see any movement is at the packing facility or when the lorries deliver the raw materials and load the finished products.

That’s because at this mill, almost every step in the production process is automated and hidden out of sight. Automated means that machines and other technology do nearly all the work on their own and need very little input from people. Your home’s dishwasher is a good example of automation. You press a button, and it does the washing, rinsing and drying automatically.

Agri-Food Sector Profile

The agri-food sector is of vital importance to the Northern Ireland (NI) economy, now and in the future. For many years it has been one of the primary drivers of our economy providing many jobs and contributing to the sustainability of the rural sector. The narrow definition of the agri-food sector includes those enterprises engaged in agriculture and the processing of food and drink. A broader definition includes wholesale and retail activities associated with food.

Jobs in the Agri-food sector

Some examples of jobs in the agri-food industry are shown below.

Abattoir worker
Animal scientist
Animal traceability operative
Agricultural consultant
Agricultural economist
Agricultural engineer
Agriculture research scientist
Animal breeder
Animal nutritionist
Animal technologist
Biochemical engineer

Factory operative
Farm manager
Fisheries research scientist
Food quality control analyst
Food safety technician
Food scientist
Food technician
Fruit and veg grower

Landscape scientist
Leakage Operative
Measurement control technician
Micro biologist
Packaging designer
Plant breeder/geneticist
Polymer Chemist
Process development technologist
Quality assurance tester
Savoury flavourists
Soil scientist
Supply chain manager

Who are the employers in the Agri-food sector?

There are 26000 farms and 300+ food manufacturing and processing companies in NI who employ over 115,000 people. Some examples of companies in the sector are:

John Thompson Animal Feed
Kettyle Irish Meats and Foods
Evron Food Group Ltd
Foyle Food Group
Dale Farm
Moy Park
Just Farm Energy
Avondale Foods
Mash Direct
Barefruit Products
Forest Feast

Wilson's Country Foods
Davison Fresh Foods
Fivemiletown Creamery
Flax for Nutrition
Irwin's Bakery
Tickety Moo Ice Cream
Mullin's Ice Cream Ltd
Fane Valley
Whitewater Brewing Co.

Studying in the Agri-food sector

At School

Many of the subjects studied at school can set you on the right path for a career in the agri-food sector, for example, Science and Technology, Mathematics, Home Economics and Art and Design.

Further and Higher Education

There are a range of agri food related courses available at the colleges and Universities throughout Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom. Some educational institutes are developing courses specifically for the agri-food sector. In 2010 University of Ulster introduced Northern Ireland's first agri-food specific post graduate diploma course - PgDip/ MSc Agri-food Business Development.

Courses available:

Agricultural technology
Agri-food business development
Animal behaviour and welfare
Biological sciences
Ecological management
Environmental sustainability
Environmental biology

Diet and nutrition
Food biotechnology
Food management
Food manufacture
Food nutrition and health Food quality and safety
Food regulatory affairs
Food technology

Land use & environmental management
Marine biology
Molecular biology
Molecular ecology
Rural and countryside management
Rural sustainability
Supply chain management

For more information on further and higher education courses visit: Further Education (FE) Colleges, Queens University, Belfast and/or Ulster University.

Future of the Agri-food sector

The future of the agri-food sector looks promising and job prospects are good. The following five areas have been identified by experts in the sector as important areas to focus on in the future:

  • Differentiated/functional food
  • Innovative process and packaging
  • Enhancing consumer knowledge
  • Leveraging computational science
  • Exploiting the multifunctional nature of agri-food
  • Consumers are more health conscious
  • Increased need for convenience foods
  • Emphasis on organic produce
  • Increased regulations and legislation
  • Emphasis on food safety and traceability
  • Impact of environmental issues
  • Increasing populations

STEM Futures

Areas of Learning

Learning for Life and Work
Home Economics
The World Around Us