Grampian Food Forum offers support and advice to small producers including exposure to buyers nationwide Passion and innovation win orders in today's highly competitive food sector. And, despite the odds being stacked against the small producer, many have carved out a significant share of local and national markets for their products. For small producers operating in Grampian, north east Scotland, there is an added bonus in the shape of the Grampian Food Forum. This jointly funded industry/public sector organisation offers significant back-up in terms of technical and marketing advice, as well as exposure to potential buyers nationwide. Food represents 22% of Grampian's total exports, with around 27% of Scotland's food processing units based in the region. The Grampian Food Forum Innovation Awards ­ launched to provide a local arena for food producers to have prototype products scrutinised by industry leaders such as David Sainsbury, Archie Norman and Lord MacLaurin ­ are a vital component in the annual calendar. "Our aim is to increase public and trade awareness of the excellence and variety of the foods produced in the region," explains James Knowles, head of economic development with Aberdeenshire Council, a Food Forum partner. A promotions group helps producers to develop both skills and contacts, through such avenues as workshops, retail awareness visits and business breakfasts. There are also ongoing, instore promotions and regular newsletter updates for members. Alastair Massie and his wife Isabella, who produce jams, jellies and mustards, are typical of the region's small producers. Looking to diversify on their farm at Methlick, they launched Isabella's Preserves with a mustard relish at the Royal Highland Show in 1995. Recipe hints and tastings featured strongly and, before the first year was out, the original relish was joined by three others. Since then, four varieties of tomato relish have been developed, a range of apple jellies and also three conserves. The latest product, Love Apples, plays on the old name for tomatoes and features whole green tomatoes in syrup and wine vinegar. The products sell in the gift/treat sector at a premium ­ around £5/lb for jam ­ but sales have increased by 63% in just five years, to 60,000 jars a year, and the Massies are now employing two people. Alastair distributes most of the products personally but there is a healthy mail order business and future plans include further expansion south of the border. Farmer's wife Jill Adron from Banchory is also venturing south to promote her range of Tilquhillie puddings ­ speciality steamed sponge puddings made from oats. Building on an adapted oat-based Christmas pudding made for husband John who suffers from arthritis, Jill, John and their son Bill are now into their third year of production, with a range of 12 puddings produced in a customised unit on the farm. In response to demand the Adrons are also just about to launch a new range of flavoured children's puddings with an rsp of just under £2. With around 25% of the UK population having an intolerance to wheat, the Adrons are convinced that they will be able to further expand their pudding range. The Adrons use locally produced oats from Grampian Oat Products who have been instrumental in leading an oats revival from the most modern oat processing mill in western Europe at Boyndie, near Banff. North east Scotland produces some of the best raw oats available anywhere, and the company's general manager Alan Meikle says this quality tag is a big selling point for a small-budget company operating in a highly competitive market. Its own brand, Hamlyns of Scotland, has achieved significant growth in the last three years, up 32% last year, on top of a 50% increase the year before to current sales of £1m. The company also does around £6m worth of business annually, supplying own label into 90% of the major outlets. While oats tend to be eaten by older consumers, the company believes it can attract younger customers and currently has four new oat based, flavoured breakfast products on test. New flavours for young customers are also playing a large part in the expansion plans of the family-run soft drinks producers, Sangs of Banff. Its MacB sugar-free drinks range won a number of awards and created a healthy image for itself through promotion of junior sport. The company is looking to expand its range for youngsters with a new sportscap product incorporating sugar-free natural flavourings in 330ml of still water from its own recently discovered spring. Asda already stocks five branded products nationwide including Just a Dash, a squash concentrate selling at 99p a litre and making five litres of finished product. The company plans to focus on further development south of the border. {{Z SUPPLEMENTS }}