Facilities sharing leads new Defra study

A Defra-funded study into the potential of sharing food processing facilities in the UK, including meat cutting plants, as an answer to barriers to business start-up and expansion is being carried out after similar projects were hailed a success in the US.

Another possibility is for farmers, who process meat on their farms, to sub-contract out their facilities to neighbouring farmers, in order to cut costs and fill in the missing link between the abattoir and the retail outlet.

Benjamin Dent, researcher and consultant for local food and small food enterprises at Imperial College, London, headed up the study in the UK in order that Defra could analyse the possibilities of such a scheme.

Dent said: "This concept is ideal for people who want to go into processing meat products on a part-time basis. This would be a lower risk way into it as you just pay for the hire of the building."

He added that some of the key factors deterring people from embarking on starting a business were the logistics of distribution, lack of, or cost of, processing facilities and equipment, and business and technical skills.

He said: "These introduce risks which deter many people, leaving untapped the potential of those who would like to 'have-a-go', but who dare not, or simply cannot afford the investment necessary."

The so-called 'kitchen incubators' were first established in the US in the mid 1990s to respond to these challenges and more recently they have begun to be developed in the UK.

The only permanent UK location to currently provide a shared processing facility is based at Otley College in Ipswich, Suffolk. This site links together training and education while helping to establish small business enterprises. For example, as well as accommodating meat cutting training for Waitrose staff and food processing college students, commercial companies can also operate at the college-based facility.

Foodskills manager at the college, Carolyn Leggett, said combining the students with business operations worked well and they also provided sausage-making and meat-cutting courses with a consultant butcher, particularly useful for farmers looking to diversify into retail.

Dent explained that setting up pilot schemes at other further education colleges where facilities were shared with commercial companies was one way for the scheme to develop in the UK and some agricultural colleges had expressed an interest, as they "sensed the trend that the culture for co-operation is increasing." The other way forward could be organised as a brokering system. This would mean that someone could hire an already established, commercially run facility on a farm which was currently not used full time.

However, Dent said the success of these strategies depended on whether funding was granted by the Regional Development Agencies or other such organisations.

"Small farmers are realising that they have got to move into more of the marketing side of things and they are starting to be more enthusiastic and more willing to consider a co-operative system because it's more commercially viable for them," he said.