Blog: Food, glorious food!

Rural Advisor Helen Dale looks into the support available for small scale food & drink manufacturers in Shropshire
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We know that farming and food production covers a huge and diverse range of businesses, from large scale to small, and each farming system will have their own markets and opportunities.

Over recent years we have seen considerable growth in farmers and food producers choosing to sell direct to the public. For some this may make up the majority of their business income. For others it is just another opportunity within a range of other diversified income streams.

Direct selling to consumers has a number of advantages. As well as cutting out the middle-man, enabling you to maximise income from your produce, it also enables you to get feedback direct from consumers and to build a loyal customer base.

However it's not without its challenges. You'll need to navigate your way through the relevant regulations and keep on top of paperwork. You may need to find a new premises or re-purpose a redundant building. You'll need to become your own marketing and sales team. There's lots to do – and there can be lots of officialdom to overcome!

So it's great to discover that there is help out there – and it's not always to be found in the most obvious place.

One such example is the AGRI project: a partnership between Harper Adams and Aston Universities. The project aims to support small to medium scale food and drink producers in developing and growing their business, with a focus on new product development.

The new product development workshops the AGRI project offers are free for Shropshire food and drink businesses. So, as a small-scale food producer and having just moved over the border from Staffordshire, I was keen to sign up. January this year saw a range of food businesses come together: a local company selling nuts and breakfast cereals, a vegan cheese producer (the discussion around using 3D printers to produce vegan Edam cheese blew my mind slightly!), a Jamaican honey farmer (currently studying in Shropshire) and a number of small-scale meat producers.

The workshop was a great opportunity for everyone to take time away from the day-to-day running of their businesses and focus on new products and innovations. Discussions focussed on reviewing the business, exploring capacity to grow within the business, identifying your market and how to minimise risk when launching new products.

The training day was then supported by a number of one-to-one follow up sessions to consider bespoke action plans for each business using the Innovation Canvas model.

So what did I get out of it? A chance to focus on where new opportunities lay within my food business. Valuable links within a network of contacts who can provide support, such as the use of the development kitchen at Harper Adams or access to lab testing for new products. Mostly it provided me with some great mentoring from the project team which has given me a new momentum and enthusiasm for taking the business forward.

The project also offers bespoke engineering, such as food sensing and 3D printing support, to businesses in the agri-tech sector. Although the project was initially funded through European funding, by the European Regional Development Fund, which is now coming to an end, it is hoped that the work will continue through funding opportunities from the UK Shared Prosperity Fund.

Accessing support through this project was specific to Shropshire, but you may find similar opportunities in your local area. So it's worth looking around and making connections with local food groups, Universities and local authorities to see what opportunities might be out there.

And the best thing about direct selling? Getting to meet the customers, of course.

Key contact:

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Helen Dale Rural Adviser, CLA Midlands