I cannot begin to tell you how delighted I am to be here today. As some of you may know, I have been involved in one way or another with this project from its conception and on this day of its birth I have to confess to feeling a real sense of excitement.
I am also filled with admiration for all those of you who first had the foresight and then the sheer courage to see it through.
I first heard about the idea to build a meat processing facility in the very beginning of 2001 when I visited Orton Farmers Market and met its founder, the amazing Jane Brook, who I am so delighted is here today. It was, I seem to remember, the experience of selling at the farmers' market directly to customers that showed you how your margins could be increased if you could shorten the chain.
The horrors of Foot and Mouth put all your plans on hold. But Cumbrians don't give up that easily, thank God! So when I came back to Cockermouth Auction Mart in November 2001 you told me once again of your plans. Luckily, as President of Business in the Community, I brought with me a group of business people in the hope of encouraging them to find ways of helping you to recover from Foot and Mouth. One of them, Sir Graham Melmoth, fortunately saw what was needed and agreed to fund two people in the North West whose brief was to assist groups of farmers to collaborate to add value to their local products.
And onto the scene, as a result, arrived one particularly important person who has been such a crucial part of this project, Richard Lancaster. Somehow he has managed to stay closely involved, wearing three different hats: firstly, Business in the Community, then Rural Regeneration Cumbria and, more recently, Barclays Bank, who have also been marvellous supporters of the project. All I can say is that whichever piece of headgear Richard has worn he has always been at the right place at the right time to make this project fly. I am sure that all of you would agree that a huge debt of gratitude is owed to him – and that we all take whatever hats we are wearing off to him!
There are also two other people to whom a very special thank you is due and without whom we would not be standing here today. There are not many people who exhibit the kind of generosity that we have seen from Barbara and Steve Dunning – but it was only because they gave this land that this project turned from a dream into reality. So we really do think it is remarkable what you have managed to do.
Every member of Junction 38 should take the greatest possible pride in the fact that you are pioneers. Steve Dunning, Richard Warburton, Brian Bowness and Jane Brook led the way, but without the individual investment of each and every one of you it could never have happened.
Don't forget that you are being closely watched by farmers across the country. I don't need to tell you that. Agriculture is undergoing a revolution. The changes in funding are having a massive impact. You know better than anyone that farmers are having to come to terms with a very different way of doing business, as well as increasing costs. Only last week, we heard that farm incomes last year dropped by eleven per cent as a result of rising costs. And, for some, it is proving almost too much. I am patron of Farm Crisis Network and I know from that splendid organization just how much fear and uncertainty exists. Now, more then ever, farmers need help so they can adapt to these radically different conditions. They need help to co-operate so they can reduce their costs, increase their commercial weight and improve their marketing skills.
In fact, they need to do exactly what the Junction 38 Partnership is doing and that is why you are a real beacon of hope.
Junction 38‘s facility will provide a bespoke, high quality contract service for small and large producers alike, and even for organic farmers. The superb facilities inside the plant will ensure meat is hung properly (at last!), cut properly and packed to each customer‘s specification. High-quality, locally-reared meat will be treated with the respect and quality of processing it deserves. In other words, this plant will produce genuinely "slow food" for people who really mind about taste and texture.
And, what is more, the meat comes from one of the most beautiful parts of England, betwixt the Lake District and Yorkshire Dales National Parks. Many of the members of the Junction 38 Partnership farm in these national parks. And they do so much to preserve and enhance their beauty and environment, not least by producing native breeds of livestock, such as Rough Fell, Herdwick and Swaledale sheep and Galloway, Highland and Angus cattle. These types of livestock are perfectly suited to the harsh conditions and are an essential part of managing these upland areas.
No-one here needs me to tell them that the economics of livestock farming are tough. But it is my hope that Junction 38 will provide a catalyst for the increased production of these breeds by providing a focal point for sharing of good ideas between farmers and a centre for customers to come and purchase some of the finest quality meat. The fact that you have already established a separate trading company, “Lakes & Dales Born & Bred” is a stroke of genius.
Finally, there is one group of people whom I have not yet mentioned and that is the public funders. They, too, have set an example for others to follow because they have approached this project in just the right spirit, thinking long-term, and I can only applaud them most warmly. The North West Regional Development Agency, Rural Regeneration Cumbria, Cumbria Fells & Dales Leader Plus and “Distinctly Cumbrian” have worked together in the most extraordinary way. They recognized the potential of a farmer-owned business to help the local agricultural community to adapt to the new world and add value to their products – and then they had the courage to back it, working with the partnership to overcome the inevitable problems along the way.
Some people may ask why farmers should receive this sort of help. And farms, of course, are businesses just like any other. But, it is a big but, the difference is that you, the farmers, are also the custodians and progenitors of our special landscape and environment. You are delivering something of incalculable value to each and every one of us – particularly in National Parks - and that is why such assistance during this difficult period of transition is so vital.
Today has filled me with a real optimism for the future. You have shown just what can be achieved with determination, tenacity and by working in partnership. You have also reminded people that small abattoirs and processing plants are crucial to localities and to animal welfare and that “big” is not necessarily beautiful or more hygienic! Nothing could give me greater pleasure than to declare the Junction 38 Partnership Meat Processing Facility open.