Businesses and individuals in the food and drink industry throughout the region are called to celebrate their talent and effort by entering the 2012 Highlands and Islands Food and Drink Awards.
Organised by the Highlands & Islands Food & Drink Forum, and supported by Highlands and Islands Enterprise, the Awards celebrate excellence and achievement in the area's food and drink industry.
Scotland's reputation as an innovative producer of some of the best food and drink in the world has never been higher. Yet it is less widely reported that much of the industry's growth is being driven by food and drink companies based in the Highlands and Islands.
Held for the eighth time, the event aims to showcase the wide range of diverse products and businesses now operating in the region can celebrate their achievement and encourage them to be innovative, forward thinking and collaborative.
Organised by the high-profile Highlands & Islands Food & Drink Forum, the Awards are now open for entry, and it is hoped that companies of all shapes and sizes will put pen to paper as part of their ongoing strategy to grow and develop their business - and fly the flag for the industry in their own area.
As Stewart Crichton, general manager of 2011 award-winner Orkney Fishermen's Society explains: "The easiest thing in the world is to simply let the opportunity pass you by. But when you do sit down with your team to talk about how your entry is going to be presented, your really do focus on your strengths and weaknesses - and surely that's vital for any business?"
Orkney Fishermen's Society won the Partnerships for Success Award and overall Excellence Award last year and, in 2010, the Distance No Object Award. The company also won the Success Through Working in Partnerships category in the recent 2012 Scotland Food & Drink Excellence Awards. Says Stewart: "While we don't expect to enter awards and win every time, when you do win it recognises the hard work of the people within your organisation who are so committed.
"It's good for your people, it's good for enhancing the profile of your business because it opens more doors for you and, in our case, it's a real flag-waving exercise for Orkney. We want to promote our area and the Highlands & Islands Food & Drink Awards have really helped us put Orkney on the map."
Another award-winner - also in 2009 and 2011 - is Reids of Caithness. According to managing director Gary Reid, it is important to get involved in awards initiatives if you want to grow your business. "It works for us as a company on several different levels," he says. "We're in the business of growing our business and the exposure you get from being part of the Highlands & Islands Food & Drink Awards, even if you don't win, is absolutely fantastic.
"We won the Distance No Object Award as well as the New Product Award last year, and the New Product Award in 2009," he continues. "While we didn't really think we had a chance of winning, on both occasions we were satisfied that we'd put together a strong entry - we understood the criteria and had met that criteria, so we went into the process with confidence."
And Gary's advice to companies, particularly small ones that don't think they can compete against bigger, more experienced companies/ organisations? "Don't let that put you off," he urges. "We're a very small company operating with a tight team but we are ambitious and want to grow, so entering the Awards is great way of getting everyone focused on where we need to make improvements.
"In our view entering the Awards is a really good business exercise in itself. We were really honoured just to be shortlisted a couple of years ago but the staff were so excited and it gave everyone a real buzz, so to then go on to win twice has given us a tremendous boost and got the Reids name - and our products - noticed."
Around 1900 companies currently operate within the food and drink supply chain in the Highlands and Islands. As well as boosting the area's economy and providing employment - often in rural and remote areas - these businesses are the lifeblood of a dynamic industry that is key to the future growth and prosperity of the region. And when you throw innovation into the mix, the region's food and drink sector really does stand tall and proud.
Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) continues to support the Awards. As Iain Sutherland, senior development manager for food and drink at HIE points out: "The quality of our food and drink products plays a key role in defining the Highlands and Islands of Scotland to the rest of the world. We continue to lend our support because of our belief in the potential for further development and the need to encourage and reward those businesses which contribute to an industry which is such a significant economic driver for the region."
HIE, in line with the Scottish Government's Economic Strategy, has identified - and supports - food and drink as one of seven sectors which have the greatest potential to boost sustainable economic growth. The others are: creative industries; energy; business services; life sciences; universities; and sustainable tourism.
What's more, the industry is in good health. According to HIE, the food and drink industry in the Highlands and Islands generates turnover in excess of £1 billion per annum and supports around 25,900 full time jobs across the region. From the primary producers - the farmers, fishermen and fish farmers - to the food manufacturers and the many supporting businesses that provide goods and services required in the food and drink supply chain, the food industry in the Highlands and Islands is absolutely critical to the region's long-term sustainability.
Add to the mix the whisky industry - distilling employs some 1200 people in the Highlands and Islands - and the result is a food and drink industry that is certainly robust and extremely diverse.
Meanwhile, Scottish food and drink exports are at an all-time high. Last year, exports hit £5.4 billion, underpinned by a strong performance from the whisky industry. These most recent figures for food and drink exports reveal that industry growth has exceeded all expectations with the target to increase exports to £5.1 billion by 2017 surpassed six years early.
While whisky exports in 2011 were worth a record £4.23 billion (23% up on 2010), fish and shellfish were the highest value food sector export (up 4% to £648.4m). And there is no question that businesses located within the Highlands and Islands have contributed to this outstanding growth.
Many of the best-known names in food and drink in the Highlands and Islands need little introduction - Baxters and Walkers Shortbread spring to mind. But it is the smaller businesses generating renewed interest in what the region has to offer that are causing such excitement.
Companies such as Saladworx, an enterprising young producer which grows its own salad leaves in Dornoch and Tio Ltd (This is Organics), the exclusive supplier of organic carrots to Tesco in the UK, are among those previously recognised by the judges in the Highlands & Islands Food & Drink Awards.
Others include: Orkney Fishermen's Society, a co-operative of shell fishermen: salmon producer Loch Duart, based in South Uist and Sutherland; the Puffer Bar & Restaurant on the island of Easdale, off Oban; family baker and confectioner Reids of Caithness, located in Thurso; and the Summer Isles Hotel at Achiltibuie, Ross-shire.
These companies - and many others like them - are encouraged to enter the forthcoming Highlands & Islands Food & Drink Awards. The entry process is straightforward and simple, and anyone considering submitting an entry should note the closing date of Friday, 15th June.
The Awards Ceremony and Dinner take place on Friday 19th October 2012 at the Drumossie Hotel, Inverness.
Further information on award categories and how to enter can be found at www.hifoodanddrinkawards.com