AN AWARD-WINNING meat producer is expanding his business after building an up-to-the-minute cutting and packaging plant.

Stephen Knox has built an enviable reputation for the quality of his Yorkshire Dales Beef brand. His range of joints, steaks, burgers and gourmet sausages have a keen clientle in farm shops, farmers' markets and local restaurants.

Now he hopes to attract independent retailers and private and public sector caterers who want to offer their customers fully-traceable, locally-produced meat.

"Buyers, whatever their market, have the confidence of knowing where our meat comes from and that we can supply the cuts they want, when they need them," said Mr Knox, whose new facilities are on his home farm at Patrick Brompton, near Bedale. "This new facility enables us to tailor our meat to our customers' needs, using our experience of working with retailers, restaurants and supplying local authorities."

The new plant attracted a Rural Enterprise Scheme grant from Defra, which helped fund the construction of the building and offices, as well as the purchase of a new specialist refrigerated delivery van.

A processing and marketing grant helped pay the costs of erecting the new building, and equipping the meat cutting room.

All the meat handled by the plant is sold under Mr Knox's Yorkshire Dales Beef brand, which is also part of a scheme organised by North Yorkshire County Council supplying locally-produced food to schools in Richmondshire.

All the food is obtained through the Northern Dales Farmers' Markets which Mr Knox helped establish 18 months ago. He is the managing director.

The meat comes either from his beef suckler herd, which is reared on a hill farm near Reeth in Swaledale, or from bought-in cattle which meet his own standards. All the animals are finished on his farm at Patrick Brompton where they are raised on a diet of home-grown grass, beans and barley.

"We allow our cattle to grow and mature properly because that gives the meat its quality and character," said Mr Knox. "The only protein they receive comes from the beans. All the meat is hung for at least two weeks. Our customers appreciate that we are not operating a conveyor belt here."

Rebecca Clarkson, a Defra rural development service adviser for Yorkshire and the Humber, said Yorkshire Dales Beef had come a long way since Mr Knox founded it four years ago.

"He has put a lot of thought into how he wants his business to develop, marketing a product with full traceability and added value - which is exactly what today's customers are demanding," she said.

"This new facility opens up opportunities for retailers and restaurateurs in this region to increase the variety of Yorkshire produce they offer, and will eventually boost local employment."