I could not be more pleased to see so many of you gathered here in these rather wonderful surroundings. At least holding this event here means that you can kill two birds with one stone and see a wonderful exhibition at the same time! For those who have come from outside London, it makes the journey rather more worthwhile!
I have so enjoyed hearing from the speakers today. And I must say that listening to Joanna Jenner from Barton Pickles and Catherine Mead from Lynher Dairies, it is little surprise that they are doing so well – who could resist such persuasive salesmen? I almost feel sorry for the buyers!
But they made the point so well about the difficulties which small producers face trying to supply the retailers and the food service sector.
As many of you will know, Business in the Community, with the Institute of Grocery Distribution, published its first guide on local sourcing almost two years ago to this day. The idea was to encourage smaller producers to work more closely with larger companies by highlighting case studies of how and where relationships worked.
Things have moved on considerably since then, largely due to the Curry Commission, and I am delighted that Don is with us today. We owe him a considerable debt of gratitude for all he is doing to make people more alive to the needs of farmers and the wider rural community, and to change policy too.
Above all, he made clear the need for more collaboration between farmers and small producers, the value of shorter supply chains and the benefit of producers creating added-value products. Indeed, the creation of the English Farming and Food Partnership to encourage co-operation is one of the most encouraging developments to have come from the review so far and I am delighted to have been able to support it with a donation myself, which I understand has helped to lever further funding from retailers and others.
Don's efforts, and those of many people in this room, have meant a rethink by both ends of the food chain while customers have made it clear that more local food is what they want. I have noticed amongst retailers, with whom I have worked closely on this issue, a genuine desire to develop a local sourcing policy. Indeed, I detect a healthy competitive spirit now, as retailers vie to provide the largest range of locally-sourced produce in their stores. And from the farmers and small producers I see a greater determination and willingness to work with major retailers and foodservice companies.
But there are complicated issues for both sides. Most supermarkets manage a nationwide supply network and linking with small suppliers through their central operations can be difficult. The challenge to small suppliers is that they often don't understand the way major retailers work. I must say that I am particularly pleased that my own company, Duchy Originals, which is in a position to see and understand the problems on both sides, is now developing a local sourcing strategy to play its part in filling the gap.
I do understand that supplying the big boys at the end of the food chain is not a route that will suit all small producers, but we have heard today from some who have made a real success of it and there are signs that it is well worth the effort. As the desire grows for healthy food which can be traced to its origins, which has a story to tell and which has not travelled thousands of miles to arrive in the shop, so do opportunities for producers.
But, as the speakers have said, it is a steep learning curve. Many local suppliers understandably find it difficult to develop their product or find the right market. These can be very new skills and whilst there are many potential sources of help and advice, it can still seem confusing to those starting out. In fact, reading through this Guide, it is a miracle if anyone gets a product into a store! And that is what Business in the Community discovered when they held a series of roadshows around the country following the publication of the first local sourcing guide. What people really wanted was a ‘How to' kit, giving a step-by-step approach. And so once again BITC joined with the IGD to publish this second guide, ‘Opening the Door for Small Business'.
And to my particular delight we have extended the advice to cover working not only with retailers, but with the foodservice sector too. In recent months I have spoken to many of the leaders of this sector about the role they could play to support British farming, and I have been immensely encouraged by their response so far. I know they are now developing more local and regional procurement and I am looking forward to hearing about some real progress. With some £8½ billion of food sales in the UK, I think we would all agree that it is certainly a sector worthy of attention!
And in recent months we have seen some excellent reports published about local sourcing in schools, which I do commend to you. The Soil Association's “Food for Life” and Cardiff University's ‘School Meals: Healthy Eating and Sustainable Food Chains' make compelling reading and demonstrate that local sourcing does more than just improve the lot of the farmer. Giving children good, wholesome food to eat can also have a profound effect on the health, welfare and learning ability of our children.
Of course, the best way to make an impact is for organizations and individuals to collaborate, and I have been encouraged that BITC and IGD have now worked together on a number of local sourcing initiatives with the support of the national farmers' unions in England, Scotland and Wales, the Countryside Agency, the Small Business Service, Food from Britain and the regional food groups. There is strength in numbers! And I particularly want to thank Spar, DEFRA and The Farmers' Fund for so generously supporting the publication of this guide.
Perhaps I could just end with one thought which I think we cannot raise too often, particularly with consumers. There are still about 8,500 farmers leaving the land each year. This is an extremely disturbing trend and the countryside is rapidly haemorrhaging its most valuable assets – people with collective wisdom and local knowledge. At the moment the dairy sector is facing particular difficulties and barely a day goes by without my hearing of another dairy herd which has been sold. As President of the National Federation of Young Farmers' Clubs I know the struggle the younger generation is facing too.
This exodus from the land is a big problem. It is not just that our landscape relies on farmers for its continued stewardship, but the entire social fabric of the countryside depends on a strong agricultural base. Most consumers in this country feel a deep affinity for the British countryside, even if they do not live in it. They care about it and the villages and market towns which make it special. But none of these priceless features which we take for granted happen on their own – they require communities and continuity of management. By demanding and buying locally-sourced and regional produce, these consumers can make a real and lasting difference to the very existence of the countryside. I hope that this message is becoming more widely understood, but it depends on each and every one of us to say it again and again before it is too late. We are rapidly losing what is left of our local culture; ragged remnants from the Industrial Revolution, the agricultural revolution and now the convenience revolution.
When we finally wake up and find it is all gone, you cannot just re-invent it and grow it in yet another test tube. It is a living, delicate organism that has to be nurtured because agri-culture should be exactly that – a subtle blend of a production system with a profoundly important psycho-social component. And I particularly hope that this guide will support the efforts of the smaller family farmers to develop new products and find new markets. For they are the backbone of so much of British rural life. There are many remarkable entrepreneurs in the room today who are leading by example and I do congratulate all of you. I hope that this guide will encourage and equip others so that they can follow in your footsteps.