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WELSH foodies have never had it so good!




Connoisseurs of food and drink are waking up to the

fact Welsh produce has come a long way since the period

when hardy perennials of Bara Brith, Caerphilly Cheese,

and Welsh Lamb and Cawl dominated our national menu.


And while Covid threatened to throw an almighty spanner in the works, businesses are now adapting to the post-pandemic market to ensure Welsh food and drink offers a broader range of quality food products with a wider reach than ever before – both at home

and abroad.


If ‘Together Stronger’ was the slogan that helped transform the Wales men’s football team from plucky under-achievers into World Cup heroes – it could also apply to the ongoing campaign to hoist Wales up the global food and drink league.


For teamwork is at the heart of the ethos of the Cluster network run by the Welsh Government’s Food and Drink division. It promotes collaboration amongst food and drink businesses, suppliers, academia and government to help the sector flourish.



At its heart is collaboration between Cluster members, which helps businesses identify ways of improving operations and to address common issues facing small groups of businesses within the industry.


The idea for the programme in Wales was adopted from the Clusters model of Ifor Ffowcs-Williams in New Zealand, taking a similar approach to the nurturing and upgrading of competitive agendas. By facilitating collaborations between groups who have matters of mutual interest, this helps make their field of interest grow and develop the sector as a whole.


The nine Clusters – CEO North, CEO South, Drinks, Export, Fine Foods, NutriWales, Seafood, Horticulture and Sustainability – aim to deliver real step change as opposed to incremental growth. They offer support and ‘know how’ on how to work with other suppliers,

along with solutions to growth obstacles and exploiting commercial opportunities while developing capacity and capability.




Fine Foods


“It’s all about building resilience.” That’s the appraisal of Fine Foods Cluster Lead Bethan Jones, who says members are encouraged to give a ‘shout-out’ to fellow businesses for suggested solutions to a particular problem. “During Covid the Clusters really showed their

strength,” she enthuses. “It was obviously a very challenging time which forced people to come together and work collaboratively. “We really are a foodie nation. Some time ago Welsh Government commissioned the ‘Value of Welshness’ research. Consumers buy into the Welsh landscape, the climate, our values and culture and fine foods are part

of the package.”


Established seven years ago, this Cluster consists of around 130 Welsh businesses working together to boost sales. Bursting with fine food and drink, the Shared Hamper – assembled while consumers were sending gifts to one another during the pandemic – was launched with the aim of helping members achieve a bigger sales reach.


“At some point you’re going to encounter barriers which perhaps group collaboration can help overcome,” says Bethan. “A company based in west Wales, for example, would otherwise be unaware of one on Deeside, despite sharing the same problems.”


Fine Foods also includes the Honey Cluster which has launched an action learning group to tackle issues as they arise. And not just matters close to home – Wainwright’s Bee Farm at Aberystwyth are currently marketing a Ukrainian honey collection.



Also located in Mid Wales, Hilltop Honey produces a wide range of products including honey, maple syrup, agave and fitness and beauty products. These are available in re-usable glass jars, fully recyclable squeezy bottles, and biodegradable materials. Having arisen from humble beginnings, Hilltop’s proud boast is that their pure and natural products have

nothing added and nothing taken away. They currently export widely to the EU, Middle East and Far East.


Export


This Cluster, which aims to support businesses pursuing trade opportunities overseas, has over 120 members ranging from very large companies to much smaller outfits.

And the sluggish nature of the post-Brexit UK economy means more and more Welsh producers are looking at new horizons.


“We offer a help desk,” says Export Cluster Lead Rhys Llywelyn, “and the queries we receive range from ‘do people eat lamb in Japan?’ to ‘what kind of commodity codes do I need to send my goods abroad’?” Web-based and face-to-face events provide producers

with an overview of specific markets such as Japan, Switzerland, Singapore and Germany, while training sessions are also available.


“Covid was a real wake-up call to many businesses in terms of risk management,” says Rhys, “and the pandemic tied in with the EU exit. It was pretty grim for those businesses reliant on the UK economy and it suddenly made them aware they couldn’t put all their eggs in one basket.

“Yet unforeseen opportunities arose as different countries coming out of lockdown at different times were concerned about feeding their people.

“That did make people think about export differently and see it as more of an opportunity.

Working on Teams or Zoom meant that the world shrank and it no longer mattered whether a prospective buyer was in Cardiff or Australia.”





Since 1934 Village Bakery have supplied customers with high quality bakery products. Now they distribute bakery treats such as crumpets, pancakes, scones and Welsh cakes as well as breads of many types and styles to retailers across the EU and beyond and recently started exporting frozen pancakes to Australia.


NutriWales


Launched in 2015 with the objective of improving health and well-being while stimulating joint research, product development and access to new markets, this Cluster seeks to connect producers, academia and government while keeping one eye on the consumer.

Working closely with the Horticulture Cluster, with a big focus on sustainability, NutriWales supports desktop research and global innovations while also lending a helping hand to start-ups.

“We bring together different interest groups to focus on diets while posing the question whether there are local alternatives and more sustainable ingredients,” explains NutriWales Cluster Lead Louise Neilson. A recent collaboration with Aberystwyth University

has resulted in the production of a Welsh tea made from rhubarb leaves, while a group of members have developed pumpkin leaves as a more natural alternative to kale and spinach.

Apart from harnessing expertise at Welsh universities, NutriWales also helps producers access new markets.


Using organic milk, Rachel’s Organic make a wide range of yogurt and dairy puddings. Following a long history of production in west Wales their products are now available worldwide. Since day one, the organic yogurts have been made from original family recipes

using only local milk.



Seafood


The long Welsh coastline means seafood should be a prime part of our diet – so why is that not the case compared to past generations? “Consumers tend to want fish to look as different as possible from the original product,” explains Seafood Cluster Lead Chris Parker. “We’re mainly talking fish and chips and deep-fried fish here. People have this misconception that it’s difficult to cook and prepare fish. For example, mackerel has the

reputation for being a bony fish, but cooked correctly on the bone – whether whole or filleted – makes preparation easy.


“We have to educate the public because it’s a travesty that so much seafood caught in British waters is exported as there are so many species available.”


Accordingly, the Seafood Cluster provides support for businesses by looking at ways to increase their market potential as well as adding value to their product while analysing exactly how they operate.





Sustainability


‘To make Welsh food & drink the most sustainably produced in the world and shout about it!’ That is the vision of this Cluster, originally launched as the ‘Sustainable Brand Values’ Cluster back in the pre-Covid days of January 2020.


Building awareness, nurturing skills capability and capacity, improving insight, knowledge and research and promoting best practice are all seen as essential tools in marking the way forward. To that end engagement with PR and media, the farming unions and over a hundred suppliers is crucial. Monthly Cluster meetings, re-engagement and recruitment through the Fine Foods, Seafood and Honey Clusters are seen as important as well as liaison

with the likes of Cywain and Food Innovation Wales.


The task of building awareness is addressed through ‘Brand Ambassadors’ and the Taste Wales Sustainability Zone as well as a strong communication plan comprising a quarterly newsletter, regular press releases and case studies, and regular updates to the Cluster 201 group, the Welsh Government Sustainability team and Food and Drink Wales Industry Board.


Calon Wen is a small co-operative of organic family farms across Wales which believes in providing exceptional organic milk, cheese and butter sustainably produced. Now a leading brand in Wales, Calon Wen also supplies markets across the globe including the EU, Middle East and the Far East.





Drinks


When it comes to discovering new Welsh beers to sample, Pete Brown says that the well shows no signs of running dry.


“I’ve championed Welsh beers at the Abergavenny Food Festival for many years and even paired them with the music of bands playing the Green Man Festival in the Brecon Beacons,” says the renowned author, broadcaster and beer lover.


“Every year I worry that I might struggle to find something new and interesting, but there’s always a clutch of fantastic new beers to explore.”


‘A thriving and developing Welsh drinks sector comprising of innovative and energetic producers of distinctive high-quality drinks.’ That is Food and Drink Wales’s vision of the future of an industry dating back to the seventh century. And they aim to achieve this goal through building Welsh brands at home and abroad, improving skills and knowledge across the industry, enabling scale-up and growth and increasing innovation.





There are four special interest groups: beer and cider; wine; spirits and water, soft drinks, dairy and hot beverages. “The focus is to encourage suppliers in each sector to work together,” says Drinks Cluster Lead Mark Grant, in what is by now a familiar refrain. “If they can do that, they will inevitably see better results and solve any key challenges that may arise.”


To deliver the strategy close links have been forged with a multitude of associated bodies including Visit Wales, The Campaign for Real Ale, Food & Drink Skills Wales, Food Innovation Wales and Welsh Government Services such as Meet the Buyer.


Resurrected in 2011 before growing from a strong local following, Wrexham Lager now exports to several countries on the crest of the wave that has seen Wrexham gain global fame due to the football club’s Hollywood connections.




Horticulture


“Horticulture is a significant part of the food supply chain,” says Horticulture Cluster Lead Heulyn Greenslade, of Lantra, who have been running the group since last April. “What we found with Covid was an upsurge in the demand for locally sourced produce. “Whereas in the past market gardens sold to restaurants, now, that custom has been picked up by

local people needing supply.”


Bellis Brothers is an independently run family business, established in 1860 and located near

Wrexham in the Dee Valley. Over the past twenty years they have diversified from farming into a farm shop and garden centre. One positive aspect of Covid was that it brought the business to the forefront of the community’s mind at a time when people were unwilling to attend supermarkets and simply wanted ‘local’.


As well as raising awareness of sustainability issues, this cluster also aims to encourage businesses to reduce their number of food miles through online sessions

and face-to-face meetings. FareShare Cymru run a ‘Surplus with Purpose’ scheme

which provides funding for the redistribution of leftover produce, while a recent presentation by The Food Technology Centre offered alternative solutions

to food waste.


“The FareShare Cymru scheme is absolutely crucial to the Horticulture Cluster,” says Heulyn. “We are happy to spread their message and numerous horticulture businesses – Puffin Produce, for example – have signed up to it.”




CEO


The CEO Cluster is split geographically, with one serving businesses in the north of Wales, and the other focusing on the south. Their key objectives are to support larger and fast growth businesses to meet each quarter to discuss opportunities, challenges and to

learn from both guest speakers and other companies.


This growth is driven by a combination of factors including innovation, new sales channels and new product development, all of which may be supported by this group’s work.


For example, the CEO – South Cluster holds quarterly events such as dinners and site visits, to enable CEOs/MDs and technical leaders to develop valuable relationships and collaboration to benefit participating companies.


Themes at previous events have included looking at the role of the Non-Executive Director; the economic outlook and the impact of the food and drink industry; and an update on the performance and future plans of UK supermarkets.


The Cluster also provides a forum for the Welsh Government and Food and Drink Wales to receive insight into the health and optimism of larger and faster growing food and drink companies. This has included CEOs and MDs from the CEO – South Cluster attending a round-table meeting with the Welsh Government’s Economy Minister.


Meanwhile, recent activities for the CEO – North Cluster has included a mix of online and face to face events. A number of members have also taken part in a pilot programme looking to reduce energy costs by collaborating to increase purchasing power with utility

companies. Looking ahead, there are plans for several site visits to larger member sites, such as AMRC, and an event aimed at identifying and accessing finance and grant

support for the sector.




As for Lesley Griffiths, the Welsh Government’s Minister for Rural Affairs and North Wales, and Trefnydd, she is in no doubt that the secret to a thriving and sustainable food and drinks sector is collaboration.


“Bringing like-minded individuals and businesses together is vital, and the industry is reaping the rewards of closer collaboration.


“During the pandemic we saw the Clusters come into their own as a key means of gathering intelligence from the food and drink sector. This helped everyone across the industry work together to help overcome what was a challenging period.


“Looking ahead, I have no doubt that the Clusters will remain central to the success of Welsh food and drink and act as powerful catalysts for growth, innovation and opening of new market opportunities.”


Yes, the days when Wales was regarded as something of a culinary desert now seem ancient history. Ironically, Covid has helped open an exciting chapter akin to the times when Celtic tribesmen would regularly cross Offa’s Dyke buying and selling their wares, fuelled by the knowledge there were exciting new worlds to explore…

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