It might come as a surprise to learn that the food and drink industry in the south west boasts 85,000 jobs and 3,000 firms turning over £2.8bn a year - and that's not including catering, retail and farming. Take those into account and the food economy for Cornwall alone is valued at around £1bn a year, according to figures from the University of Exeter's Centre for Rural Research.
With this in mind, specialist rural institution Duchy College is aiming to further boost this sector by investing £4.7M in modern food processing facilities. The new Agri-Food Innovation Centre (pictured) is under construction and should be ready by the summer. Dr Phil Le Grice, director of research, explains the thinking behind the project: "We need to be at the leading edge of helping people and companies meet the challenges of the future. We have a very strong agricultural and horticultural background at the college and it is clear that for many farmers and growers, part of their future will be about maximising the value they get for the quality produce they grow and animals they rear."
Le Grice believes that part of this will be achieved by adding value to the production and manufacture of products. He points to a recent document, published by the South West Regional Development Agency, which claims that over 60% of food firms in the south west can trace their origins to diversifying farm enterprises.
Once complete, it is hoped the new Agri-Food Innovation Centre will enhance the college's existing courses and allow for the training to be expanded. The centre includes a laboratory and pilot facilities to provide practical application of the academic work, and also for use by local businesses to develop ideas and new products. In return, this will help the college ensure course content is relevant for students and employers.
But, explains Dr Liz Whitley, head of food processing and manufacturing, companies won't be hiring out small units, as can often be the set-up with other centres. Instead, they "will come in to do their development work, or test out a new concept on the production line", she says.
Whitley also stresses the importance of the link between food producing and processing in the region, one of the key areas the centre will encourage.
"There has been a huge growth in food producers moving into processing," she says. "Everyone seems to be looking for diversification down here. We want to encourage people to carry on with that."
Whitley believes the region's strong identity has led to an increased demand for Cornish products, which also fits with the increasing importance today's consumers place on the provenance of food.
The Cornish location will also help the centre achieve its aim, adds Le Grice, who believes such an "idyllic location" will act as a stimulus for unrestrained and innovative thinking. "If you were to give the new centre a theme it would definitely be innovation," he adds. The centre will also work alongside the Food Innovation Service - a consultancy business that is complementary to the college. The consultants are industry-based professionals who are able to use their experience across a broad section of the sector to offer support to small and medium sized enterprises.
While Duchy College, part of Cornwall College, develops its provision of food technology education programmes, the new centre will draw businesses closer to these programmes, ensuring they are designed to serve them better in the long term.
"With the exception of placement years, student interaction with business has been lacking in the past," explains Le Grice. "Duchy College aims to bring both businesses and students under one roof, facilitating interaction." The aim is to provide students not only with the academic skills but also to show them the relevance of what they are being taught in a practical approach.
The list of supporters is impressive, with plenty of interest from business and students, adds Whitley. The project has been led by an industry steering group chaired by Michael Horrell, the man behind Cornish Yarg Cheese. "The food and farming industries are exciting and we need to attract talented people to get qualified and come and forge their careers in this industry," says Horrell. "The facilities will help do this."
Currently, the college offers NVQ level 2 and 3 in Food and Drink Manufacturing Operations, as well as Modern Apprenticeships, both of which are aimed at people already working within the industry. Work-based learning is another key facet of its provision as it is widely recognised as an accessible and flexible training delivery method.
From September, students will be able to study a Foundation Degree in Agri-food, with the opportunity to specialise in one of four areas: Food Manufacturing Technology; Food Health and Nutrition; Food and On-Farm Processing and Food Innovation and Entrepreneurship. To offer maximum flexibility, the foundation degree can be taken full-time, part-time or on a stand-alone modular basis. This enables it to be broken down into single courses, which can be 'banked' towards the full degree, providing flexibility for those in full-time employment or who just want to study specific modules.
Clotted cream and butter producer and farmer Bill Clarke already uses the college's facilities. He says: "These courses are just what we need. They allow us to gain higher level skills and knowledge in a very flexible way that fits in with the running of the business."
And as Le Grice points out, it is this kind of customer-led approach that has led to Duchy College being granted Centre of Vocational Excellence status by the Learning and Skills Council (UK education funders).
The college is also working with the University of Plymouth to create opportunities for degree and post graduate study, linking food and health issues with the growing areas of nutrition and dietetics. The two centres already share staff for undergraduate and post graduate teaching and researchers at the university will use the knew building when it is completed.
"This is an exciting collaboration," says Le Grice. "The aim of the South West Regional Development Agency is to be the region of excellence for food, and with the enthusiasm of the staff and businesses at Duchy, this could well be achievable." FM
Food and Farming: A year in the life of ...
The link between food and farming is what underpins a new scheme for schools from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA).
How food is produced and sourced, and how it impacts on our health and the environment will form the basis of a Year of Food and Farming in education, starting in September 2007.
The initiative will aim to involve all schools in England and is supported by DEFRA, the Department for Education and Skills and the Department of Health. His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales will act as patron.
Environment secretary David Miliband says: "Consumers need to make informed choices, and where better to start than in educating the next generation."
The Year of Food and Farming will link with other initiatives such as The Healthy Schools Standard and Strategy for Sustainable Food and Farming, and will be led by a steering group fronted by Sir Don Curry, chair of the Sustainable Food and Farming delivery group.
The main aims of the year are to: improve understanding of the food chain and the role played by farming; increase links between schools, farmers and food producers; develop healthier lifestyles and good nutrition; and increase interest in careers in food and farming.
Some key goals have been set out for schools, which include: ensuring that every primary school pupil has had first hand experience of food being grown by visiting a farm; has prepared at least one food plate during the primary school years; and making every student and teacher aware of how food and farming opportunities fit in with the curriculum.
All schools should also be participating in local procurement initiatives and every secondary school pupil should have the chance to undertake relevant work related activities.
According to Miliband, the public sector spends about £2bn on food and catering services each year, which "represents a fantastic opportunity for producers". The government has also pledged £240M to subsidise healthy ingredients in school food until 2011.
Speaking at the launch, Curry added: "It is vital that young people have a better understanding of where their food comes from, how it is produced, and the importance of eating a balanced diet. The year will provide a springboard for this."
A dedicated website to signpost events will be developed in due course.
For more information about the Year of Food and Farming go to http://www.defra.gov.uk/schools/yff.htm