'From the farmer to the consumer we have to think about every step in the process to ensure that the wonderful array of local products from South East farmers become more accessible to the public,' says Duncan Mackay, Countryside Agency regional director for the South East.
Organised by the Countryside Agency and the South East England Development Agency (SEEDA), yesterday's event setting up the Local Products Network confirmed that more could be done to strengthen the local produce sector. The network will identify issues and then instigate appropriate action to improve the supply of local products through the wholesale and retail food chains and encourage producers to develop products and local marketing initiatives.
'The activities of the network will support our work towards reinforcing people's awareness of local products, local distinctiveness, the local economy and the values of our countryside. We want to remind people of the links between food production and the landscapes we cherish, strengthen local food networks and strengthen the chain between producer and consumer, encouraging consumers to buy those foods, in particular regional speciality food and drink in season. It is also British Food Fortnight, the campaign launched by the Countryside Alliance and the Guild of Fine Food Retailers to bring about a renaissance in the pleasures of buying and eating British food. All these activities will help,' Mr Mackay says.
Jeremy Bolas, land based sector adviser at SEEDA, says: 'Today's meeting has been very much geared to bringing together organisations like The Soil Association, Sustain - The Alliance for Food and Farming, the South East Food Groups Partnership, the Government Office for the South East, the Farm Retail Association, farming and local government groups, the South East Rural Community Councils and many other groups. By ensuring we are fully aware of each others' work, we can be much more effective in supporting and assisting the many businesses which depend on consumers' interest in local food and drink products.'
'Our main aims with the Local Products Network are to ensure it works to an action plan based on clearly identified needs. This will guide work in ensuring that:
* consumers have clear information to help them understand the implications of their shopping decisions
* there is an increased awareness of the benefits of accreditation schemes which are easily understood and which support the products of sustainable land use and husbandry
* local marketing initiatives develop which celebrate local qualities and ensure the local integrity of food products
* the availability of locally produced food and drink products increases
* there is recognition of the role of community led food initiatives
* there are benefits to urban and rural areas, including reflecting the historic importance which London holds for marketing and distribution
'Funds for regional local products will be available and with the benefit of robust information, we will be able to target those funds to deliver the needs of the sector. We will work with partners to identify economic benefits, social benefits and environmental benefits which result from the development of food and drink businesses in the region. We are also very conscious of the historic role London has played in the history of the UK's food and drink industry, as a major centre for trade and for the population.
'The set-up helps to promote these and other products, acting as information sources and working with county groups and producers. We will be working with them and with our partners in ensuring more goods are produced in a way which benefits the South East economy, people, places and the environment and that more people are aware of these links,' Mr Bolas says.
Mr Mackay adds: 'One of our main tasks in working towards this Local Product Network has been to make people in the South East more aware of fresh, local produce and to encourage them to purchase products which sustain our countryside. The South East has a very varied landscape providing an abundance of natural resources for farmers and producers to produce their high quality food and drinks. Chalk streams and rivers are ideal for trout and watercress. The rich alluvial soils of the valleys support a thriving beef and dairy industry, producing award winning meats and cheeses. The combination of rich soil and chalk found around the North and South Downs is ideal for fruit growing, vineyards, market gardening, large-scale cereal and other crops,' he says.
The Countryside Agency is responsible for advising government and taking action on issues relating to the social, economic and environmental well-being of the English countryside. The South East regional office is responsible for 10 Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and the New Forest, 4 National Trails and a rural population of 1.7 million in 1300 villages.
Six local food groups work in the South East, each centred on part of the region. In Kent, Kentish Fare looks after the interests of producers in the county which is home to masses of produce from wines, apple juice, cheeses, pickles, along with seasonal locally grown fruit and vegetables and, of course, Kentish Cobnuts. Kent is also home to the oldest independent brewery. A Taste of the South East works through Surrey and Sussex, London's original larder. Traditionally London's milk came from the Weald, its beef from Sussex cattle and lamb from the Southdown breed. Today those breeds and more range across a fascinating working landscape from the chalk grasslands of the north and south downs to traditional cattle country in the wooded Weald. Now on offer is real Sussex dairy ice cream, Surrey beef and ale pies and a host of other produce. Hampshire Fare focuses on the chalk downlands, home to famous breeds of sheep; streams and rivers well suited for salmon, trout and watercress; a thriving beef and dairy industry; and rich alluvial soils for fruit growing, market gardening, cereals and other crops, while on the Isle of Wight Sunshine Fair is looking after the interests of the local producers. And in the Thames Valley Oxfordshire, Berkshire and Buckinghamshire are mainly rural counties with an enticing range of attractive countryside from the Chilterns and world famous Cotswolds to the ancient Ridgeway National Trail. Working within this area are two groups, the Oxfordshire & Thames Valley Group and the Buckinghamshire Food Group.
SEEDA is one of the nine English regional development agencies and became fully operational in April 1999. Its mission is to work with its partners to make the South East of England a World Class region, achieving sustainable development and enhanced quality of life, as measured by: economic prosperity; environmental quality; social inclusion - ensuring opportunities and meaningful employment for all. SEEDA's five statutory objectives under the Regional Development Agencies Act 1998 are: to further economic development and regeneration; to promote business efficiency, investment and competitiveness; to promote employment; to enhance the development and application of skills; to contribute to the achievement of sustainable development in the United Kingdom.
The primary aims of the South East Food Group Partnership are: to develop a regional structure and achieve complete coverage for food groups in South East England; to help food groups develop and benefit from joint working opportunities; to develop consumer awareness of regional farm products and their value to a sustainable rural economy; to expand membership of the food groups so that more producers, particularly farmers looking to add value, can benefit from the range of trade development services provided; and to encourage food group members to adopt sustainable forms of production.
* The 'Your Countryside, You're Welcome' campaign has brought together close to 50 organisations - as diverse as the National Federation of Women's Institutes, the Ramblers Association, the National Trust, English Heritage and the Outdoor Industries Association - in order to promote the wide ranging benefits of the English countryside and to remind people that the countryside is well and truly open for business. The campaign is supported by DEFRA (Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs), the DCMS (Department for Culture, Media and Sport), the English Tourism Council and the Countryside Agency. The four official bodies are acting as co-ordinators for the wider group and are helping to communicate the generic 'visit the countryside' message. For further information about 'Your Countryside, You're Welcome' and suggestions of things to do, visit www.yourcountryside.info
Information on Farmers Markets in the South East can be found from the National Association of Farmers Markets at www.farmersmarkets.net.