The North East has a long tradition of producing quality food and drink, with many boasting a history, culture and heritage as ancient as our castles.
It's a tradition that is still thriving and one that will be celebrated during British Food Fortnight (24 September - 9 October 2005).
Defra and the Rural Development Service (RDS) are committed to supporting local farmers and other producers across the region to ensure this tradition is sustained and continues to grow in the years ahead.
Through the England Rural Development Programme (ERDP) farmers and rural businesses can access much-needed support to help them diversify and grow. Many of the innovative ideas that have evolved have been within the food and drink industry.
Funding from the ERDP's Rural Enterprise Scheme (RES) has helped establish new micro-breweries, allowed farmers to diversify into new areas of business such as ice-cream making and enabled them to develop their own processing operation to sell a wide range of niche meat products, including organic meats, direct to consumers through farm shops and farmers' markets.
Last year more than £2.45 million in RES grants was awarded to 48 projects across the region, helping to create more than 200 new jobs and safeguard around 380 existing jobs. The ERDP's Vocational Training Scheme (VTS) also provided more than £70,000 of funding to a range of training projects, helping farmers and others learn new skills, many linked to the new businesses established with RES support. Another £250,000 worth of support was also provided through the Processing and Marketing Grant (PMG) scheme.
British Food Fortnight aims to promote and preserve food and drink as part of our heritage, providing fun opportunities for the public - particularly children - to learn about the history of our food and drink, for pubs and restaurants to champion their region's produce and for the tourism sector to promote regional food and drink as an integral part of the visitor experience.
Supported by Defra and departments across Government, the initiative also has the backing of regional organisations including regional food and drink group, Northumbria Larder and the Durham Local Food Celebration, set up specifically to support British Food Fortnight and to promote local food.
Events will be organised across the country and Teesdale farmers Kath and Maurice Toward will be welcoming visitors to "walk together" around their award-winning Herdship Farm, near Harwood-in-Teesdale in the North Pennines, where they have herds of beef cattle and sheep.
The 574-acres farm is classified as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). Two thirds is part of Defra's Environmentally Sensitive Areas Scheme (ESA) and there are also areas within English Nature's Wildlife Enhancement Schemes. Their efforts have earned them several environmental prizes, including the runners-up spot in the national final of the Silver Lapwing Awards a few years ago.
Mrs Toward said:
"We've hosted open days and tours around the farm for 14 years or so, usually for people interested in the wildlife and birds here. But we were keen to support British Food Fortnight and will be offering a guided tour to let people see what happens on a farm and how their food is produced."
Many more of the region's farmers and food producers have received support through Defra and RDS to expand and enhance their businesses including Muriel Brown and her partner Bill Stephenson, who run Capri Lodge Farm Produce and Products from their smallholding at Morpeth, Northumberland.
Ms Brown explained:
"We specialise in goat products. We have a mixed herd of pedigree British Saanan goats, from which we produce milk, cheese and yoghurts and British Boer goats provide meat.
"I've been here since 1995 and Bill joined me in 2001, when we successfully applied for RES funding to help refurbish the dairy, install a new cold store and other equipment and machinery to help expand the business."
Ms Brown was awarded a RES grant of nearly £10,000 back in 2002 to help with the expansion.
"I've been really surprised by just how well it's taken off. The goat meat particularly has been doing very well. It's said to be the healthiest of the red meats and it seems a lot of people try it when they're abroad on holiday and are then buying it from us when they get home.
"We sell mainly through the Farmers' Market at Newcastle (on the first Friday of each month) and our products have been proving so popular we keep running out! British Food Fortnight is a great way to support small producers such as ourselves and it also encourages people to find our more about where their food comes from."
David Potts and his family have also received Defra funding to help develop their business, The Herb Patch, a small, family run herb nursery, tearoom and farmshop at their smallholding at Ebchester near Consett on the border of Northumberland and Durham.
Mr Potts explained:
"We grow a wide range of culinary, medicinal and aromatic herbs using organic principles and a peat-free compost. In the shop we sell local produce and crafts and a range of wholefoods. We also sell organic fruit and vegetables and operate a vegetable box delivery scheme in the local area while the tearoom offers drinks, cakes and light lunches with many items being homemade.
"The business is growing slowly as local people come to appreciate the produce available, with much new business now coming from recommendations and we're hoping to develop the business further in the future to increase our range of products and services.
"Our smallholding was too small to provide a living without diversifying into a new area and the Defra grant enabled us to develop what is now a growing business, providing an income for the family and some part-time local employment. This would not have been possible without the grant. Such grants are important in rural areas, where farmers and others need to diversify in order to ensure a viable business and provide employment for local people."