The University of Lincoln’s Holbeach campus is going from strength to strength as students and academics embark on their first full year of studies at the Agri-Food Centre of Excellence since the site’s completion at the beginning of the pandemic.

The project received £2.4 million from the Government’s Growth Deal via the Greater Lincolnshire LEP and it complements the LEP’s launch of the UK Food Valley, which aims to position Greater Lincolnshire as a global top 10 food processing cluster, delivering innovation support services and research, along with relevant skills provision, for Greater Lincolnshire's agri-food businesses and supply chains.

The Agri-Food Centre of Excellence, which is home to the National Centre of Food Manufacturing and is based at the South Lincolnshire FEZ in Holbeach, was completed in March 2021. Students working on cutting-edge research, agri-food automation, robotics, and food processing technologies can now use the state-of-the-art facilities as we emerge from the pandemic.

The building comprises a net space area of 1,350m2 of accommodation housing, a chemistry laboratory, food microbiology laboratory and preparation rooms, test kitchen and sensory suite, conference, seminar and board rooms, a learning resource centre and computing laboratory.

The site helps to strengthen research, technological development and innovation, and aid the development and competitiveness of a world-leading UK industry in Greater Lincolnshire.

So, how have the funding and facilities helped the next generation of food specialists?

We spoke to PhD students, apprentices and their tutors to discover how their work is progressing and how it will eventually support local and national food businesses.

Dr Bukola Onarinde, Associate Professor, and Dr Essam Hebishy, Senior Lecturer in Food Science and Technology at the AFCE, believe that the location of the centre is proving invaluable to the students as they often work with food businesses local to areas such as Spalding as part of their studies.

The businesses are only a 20-minute drive away, so it is quick to access them, further reinforcing the ‘hub’ concept of the AFCE and how all aspects of food research, collaboration, processing, and technology are readily available all in one area.

Dr Hebishy explained: “We do not just collaborate with regional food businesses but also international ones too – we work with an Australian company serving the frozen meat industry, a worldwide dairy company offering cheese alternatives, and lots of other businesses which focus on improving the hydration of pulses and legumes for example.

“The Centre of Excellence along with the National Centre of Food Manufacturing has had a really positive impact on our reputation with both international businesses and students from overseas too. Our work and the facilities here are key to attracting businesses so we can continue our research.”

Commenting on the new facilities, Dr Onarinde said: “The old building we used was limited in capacity, but now we’re housed in the Centre of Excellence, there is far more freedom to work.

“Areas for study are quieter as we’re away from the noise and distraction of corridors and walkways so students can focus on their work.”

She added: “We also have new facilities and systems such as a dedicated lab for decontamination in which up to 300 litres of microbiological waste can be sterilised safely, as well as a new ultrasound system.”

Dr Hebishy agreed, explaining that: “Even before the Covid-19 pandemic restrictions, the old facilities were limited in space, so maybe only 15 to 20 students could take part in practical sessions at once, meaning we would take two to three weeks to complete all practical lessons.

“Now, thanks to the larger rooms, we can accommodate more people in one go, especially as the Covid-19 restrictions are easing too. This is really beneficial in terms of saving time and resources; for example we don’t have to use and source chemicals and other resources multiple times, but rather we can use them in one practical session at once.”

Susanna Aiyedun is currently based at Minerva House at the AFCE, studying for a PhD in Food Science & Technology with a research focus on microbial decontamination of fresh produce. Similarly, Hamida Musah Alhassan is studying MSc Agri Food Technology with professional practice, researching how different drying methods affect the physical and chemical properties of culinary herbs.

Their studies will hopefully pave the way for innovative new food processes, allowing them to make informed recommendations to food companies in the future.

Susanna noted that the facilities allow her to use new technological research methods as well as traditional ones to complete her studies, and Hamida agreed that the labs and teaching rooms are high tech and easy to use, especially as the AFCE acts as a hub, meaning the essentials are all in one place.

Both students agreed that they would recommend studying at the AFCE, as there has been a massive improvement compared to the old facilities. “It is a place to exchange ideas, interact and collaborate, and even the scenery and environment surrounding the centre is beautiful…it is very peaceful!”, said Susanna and Hamida.

We also spoke to Abbey Tyrrell, a Level Three Food Technology Apprentice, and her tutor Karen Deans, Lecturer in Manufacturing at the centre.

Alongside her apprenticeship, Abbey works as a Product Innovation Executive at Cambridge Commodities, where her role entails sourcing ingredients from new suppliers for the company’s portfolio, understanding what each individual supplier wants and needs. She spends three week-long study blocks at the AFCE during the academic year and said: “The facilities are really accessible; the university even sets up local accommodation to help students access the site if needed.

“I actually commute to the site which is only an hour away from Cambridge so it’s not a problem at all. It’s quick to get to Holbeach and all the food businesses are in one area which is advantageous, and the library is a great resource to have access to when I’m here.”

She added: “There are also lots of teaching rooms and spaces to collaborate with other students. The labs upstairs are particularly helpful for practical work as there are different technologies to use as we study.”

Karen commented: “There is great technology which is easily accessible and makes it simple to communicate; for example, there are more interactive screens in the chemistry labs now which makes teaching a lot easier and more engaging.”

Abbey added:

“I would definitely recommend studying at Holbeach for food-related courses. The week blocks of study mean everything is streamlined in one place at one time, and facilities such as the labs allow us to put all the theory that we learned remotely over lockdown into practice in one purpose-built facility now that restrictions are easing.”

If you would like to find out more about the Agri-Food Centre of Excellence you can visit the website here or visit the University of Lincoln’s website to discover their current food technology courses. The LEP has recently launched its ground-breaking UK Food Valley project and website which you can visit here.

To find out how LEP funding has contributed to other local projects, click here.