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Rural businesses are integral to the food and drink industry – you’d be hard-pressed to find an organic meat farmer or producer of farm-to-fork fine cheese in the big smokes – but until now their value has been hidden behind the scenes.
As shoppers reconnect with their local retailers and food creators, and the landscapes beyond city walls become ever more desirable (according to recent research, citybound residents are flocking to the suburbs as a result of the pandemic), the team behind Speciality Food decided that the time has come to discover the true value of the rural industry.
Unsurprisingly, its tangible value is not to be sniffed at. According to Defra, overall output in predominantly rural areas is worth £261 billion, contributing around 16% of England’s economy in 2018, and since then its full value has come to be recognised by all – an update which our sector would be smart to take advantage of.
“The pandemic has changed the public’s relationship with the countryside and connection to the rural landscape. And that’s an opportunity for artisan food and drink businesses to build on,” says Catherine Linch, founder and MD of Pinstone. This new opportunity is ripe to be exploited by food and drink businesses, she says. “With strong marketing, brands can evoke an emotional response and satisfy the growing public appetite for produce that’s unique and that has a draw of the idyllic British countryside.”
According to the Country Land and Business Association (CLA), agricultural land accounts for 73% of the land area of the UK – a total of 17.5 million hectares – with the majority of this used for food production in some form. In other words, the food industry and rural Britain go hand in hand.
As time goes on, the standards of British food produced in rural areas is improving as the consumer demand for transparency and provable quality takes hold. Thankfully, government departments and industry bodies see the value of boosted standards too, and to an extent are willing to put their money where their mouths are.
“The growing recognition of the high standards that our farmers and producers adhere to continues to gather momentum – it’s a real success story that deserves to be championed,” says Pinstone’s Catherine, while Defra told Speciality Food that their future agriculture policy has been designed to help farmers provide a healthy supply of produce made to high environmental and animal welfare standards. The department’s National Food Strategy has been launched following its first major review in nearly 75 years – telling in itself – and it told us that it is “crucial” that the UK’s food system is equipped for the challenges of the future.
Says Susan Twining, chief land use policy adviser at Country Land and Business Association (CLA), “The changes in agricultural policy, in particular the removal of direct payments over the next seven years in England, will have a profound impact on farming and food production.” She advises that only 25% of farming enterprises are currently profitable without these payments, with beef and sheep, and cereal farming, the most at risk. “It’s not only government policy and industry powers affecting the livelihoods of rural-based businesses; shoppers shape the future of the sector too. Add to that [the evolution of government policy], the changes in consumer patterns, with reductions in meat consumption and increase in plant-based diets, there will be changes in farming and food production.”
In an era of dramatic societal and systematic change, it’s only natural that the way the UK farms its land will evolve too. Susan believes that technology holds the key to the future of British farming. “Food production will still be a key output from rural land in the UK, although both what is produced and how it is produced will change,” she begins. “There will be changes in farm structure and probably in who is farming the land, with a new generation of farmers who are more tech savvy and consumer conscious, and willing to adapt quickly to meet future demands.”
In terms of the tech required to power this evolution, she notes that digital technology will be the key tool to drive the change, “in particular the use of digital technology for more precision farming, data from drones and satellites to support farm management decisions in smart farming platforms, and use of robotic and automation for many tasks.” Scientists pushing biological advancement forward will play a vital role, too – although the move away from traditional farming practices might not prove to be popular with all.
“Advances in plant and livestock breeding could also have a positive impact on farming and the environment with new varieties that are more resistant to pests and diseases reducing the needs for chemicals. But new technological developments could also challenge traditional production if, for example, lab-grown meat takes off.”
The British public are more than ready to support positive development in the food and drink produced by UK farmers. “Increasingly we are seeing consumers placing greater value on food integrity, higher welfare standards and the impact their purchases are having on the environment, and as a result we’ve seen sales of organic food and drink grow by over 12% last year,” says Roger Kerr, chief executive of Organic Farmers & Growers.
Farmers have been proactively taking advantage of this. “OF&G recorded an 85% increase in enquiries about the environmental schemes we certify including organic. Producers and growers are recognising there is a significant market opportunity. If these trends continue the rural economy and the environment will undoubtedly benefit.”
Diversification is the name of the game when it comes to taking advantage of increased consumer interest. “Many farm businesses are capitalising on consumer’s growing interest in UK grown food and products,” says Roger, continuing, “the farming community has recognised the commercial benefits of diversification, be that producing cheese, making English wine, milling flour, opening a farm shop or introducing veg and meat box deliveries.”
This creative passion and innovation has long been present at the grass roots of the food and drink industry. “I’m always struck by the commitment and energy that exists within businesses with strong rural alliances,” says Catherine. “There is constant innovation particularly in how businesses market themselves and it has become much more sophisticated. Covid has really impacted this, as we all sought to overcome this particular challenge.”
Speciality Food has been full of independent retailers’ successful innovation stories for years, but the Covid-19 pandemic – with its new demands on resources and business models – has brought ‘pivots’ front and centre. “The innovation and swift diversification demonstrated by independent retailers over the past year has been incredible,” says Jenny Rose, manager of the Farm Retail Association.
“Many farm retailers, from farm shops to farmers markets, have acted quickly and pragmatically in order to adapt to their customer’s wishes. From drive through markets to low-contact vending solutions, the benefits of being an indie retailer have shone in recent times, with businesses able to act swiftly and switch up their offering to move with the times – an absolute necessity during the many changes the pandemic has thrown at us.”
“This last year has been hard on everyone. However, the local farm shop has seen a huge increase in demand and, subsequently, sales due to customers wanting to shop locally and support small businesses while keeping to current government guidelines,” Rob Tate, managing director of Appetite Me, a rural diversification company based in Suffolk, told Speciality Food.
“Therefore, the demand for locally sourced, fresh food has never been higher and the trend looks set to continue long after the pandemic is under control. As a result, we have never been busier! We have been inundated with calls from estate owners wanting to develop and build new farm shops as well as current, established shops needing our help to expand their business.”
Of course Covid-19 isn’t the only force shaping the industry in 2021. “Brexit, for people who continue and support local farmers and businesses is a great thing,” he continues. “We only see this trend rising as customers want fresh, quality produce from locally sourced suppliers. With the increase in demand – there will also be an increase in job opportunities in the rural sector.”
Within an ever-changing Britain, the value of our rural land, businesses and people unfailingly rings through.