Never mind the retailers – focus on the food processors, farmers are being urged by a collaboration expert at the English Food and Farming Partnerships.

Stuart Thomson has sent 3700 questionnaires to English manufacturers to find out how farmers can work more closely with them, because he believes they are more important buyers of agricultural produce than the retailers.

“The full implications of CAP reform for primary production are still unclear but what is certain is that farmers will have to be much more market-focused,” he said.

“This means having a better understanding of the needs of their customers who, in more cases than not, are food processors and manufacturers.

“According to the Food and Drink Federation this sector buys more than two-thirds of UK agricultural produce.”

The survey findings will not be available for some months, but an earlier pilot carried out in the East Midlands produced encouraging results, Mr Thomson said.

The region was chosen for its strong farming and food processing sectors, worth an annual £850m and £5.5bn respectively.

Of the 100 primary and secondary processors polled, some 80% of those that responded said a thriving local agricultural sector was crucial to the success of their own businesses. And two-thirds said they wanted to work more closely with producers.

However, most of them rated quality, availability, traceability and price as more important than the origin of produce.

And for arable and dairy products, price was the biggest factor in choosing a supplier.

Innovation and knowledge of the business were not highly ranked.

The research also showed that 70% of processors worked directly with some farmer-suppliers, although nearly two-thirds of produce was actually bought from a wholesaler or a private company.

Fewer than 10% said they got most of their supplies from a farmer-controlled business.

“There is an opportunity to increase that number,” said Mr Thomson.

“Farmers working collaboratively can get closer to processors and find out what they really need, whether it’s a different specification or further processing.”