Keep it real

Farmers' markets are flourishing, organic farming is booming, and a welter of organisations are behind the drive to buy British, says Caroline Stacey. So what do the people behind our laden Christmas tables think about the state of British agriculture? Julia Stuart went to find out
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online

"You're not going to make it political, are you?" asked one farmer we approached. As if. As if it were possible for farmers themselves to steer clear of the subject as easily as a townie would avoid a bull in a paddock. The land and the food it yields is not neutral ground; it never has been.

"You're not going to make it political, are you?" asked one farmer we approached. As if. As if it were possible for farmers themselves to steer clear of the subject as easily as a townie would avoid a bull in a paddock. The land and the food it yields is not neutral ground; it never has been.

But we should all be on the same side. Buying British, and locally produced food, is A Good Thing. How could it not be? You don't have to be an eco-warrior or an anti-globalisation activist, a Europhobe or an ally of the Prince of Wales to see there's no sense in importing from the other side of the world what we can grow and rear ourselves. And when it comes to Christmas – give or take a pinch of dried fruit here, cranberries and spices there – the best raw materials are those that come from farmers dedicated to producing the food we look forward to all year: turkey, ham, Stilton, Christmas cake and sprouts.

In fact, British farmers produce two-thirds of the food we eat, according to the National Union of Farmers. Organic farming is on the increase as more customers demand food they can trust not to be produced with pesticides and scary shortcuts that compromise quality and possibly our health. There are now 4,000 organic farms in the UK, compared to 800 five years ago. More and more shoppers are meeting farmers face-to-face at the 200 farmers' markets across the country.

Henrietta Green, whose Food Lovers' Fairs have been a lifeline for many farmers and producers, and who has championed British food since the Eighties – "when people thought I was off my trolley" – urges us to "go to farmers' markets and fairs, buy online; appreciate what you're buying".

Even supermarkets, often painted as the villains for squeezing their suppliers, are becoming more aware about giving farmers a fair deal, and of the value of local and specialist British food. Waitrose, upheld as an example of good practice and the way forward, has introduced a charter for small producers. "If you care about food, you should know its pedigree. It all starts with the farmer," says Green. Later this month, when the BBC Radio 4 Food and Farming Awards are dished out, it will be another example of how, as Radio 4's Dixi Stewart puts it, "we now recognise the complete connection between food and where it comes from".

Organisations like the Council for the Protection of Rural England, the Countryside Agency, Campaign for Real Food, Soil Association, and the Guild of Fine Food Retailers are falling over each other to encourage us to buy local food. Meanwhile, more effort and money – from the Government post foot-and-mouth disease – is going into promoting British produce. But doesn't make earning a living any easier for the farmers: "The person who just milks the cows is having a jolly diffficult time," says Green.That, though, is straying into political territory. Let's see what the dairy, arable, vegetable, livestock and poultry farmers responsible for getting Christmas dinner on the table have to say about it ...

Stilton

When Bill Handbury isn't producing milk that goes into Christmas Stiltons, he does stand-up comedy. He's never short of material, given the state of British farming, which he considers a joke. The other day, when they ran out of milk, his wife went to buy a pint from the garage. It cost her 50p. Bill gets 9p for his.

Fernhill Farm lies in Colston Bassett, Nottinghamshire, one of only three counties (the others are Leicestershire and Derbyshire) in the area permitted to produce Stilton. The pastures there help to produce the perfect ratio of butterfat and protein in cow's milk for the cheese, the only one in Britain to have a trademark. Six creameries are licensed to produce Stilton, and milk from Bill's farm is one of five that goes to Colston Bassett Dairy, the last to start using pasteurised milk. Bill believes each of the six cheeses has a distinctive flavour, Colston Bassett being relatively mild.

Bill's grandfather first came to the farm, which is tenanted and owned by the Crown Estate, in 1919. Today, its herd of 70 British Friesians produce 800 litres a day, and up to 1,000 litres in June and July. The Christmas cheeses are made from milk produced in July, August and September. The dairy produces up to 10,000 whole Stiltons and 10,000 mini ones for the festive season. They are sold in the UK through cheese shops and delicatessens, and exported to the United States, Canada, Europe and Australia. One of its biggest customers is Neal's Yard Dairy. "We feel very proud that our name is known worldwide for quality," Bill says.

Yet the farm is faced with the problem of low returns for its milk. In 1996 he was getting up to 25p per litre. Now it's 17p. "Plus production costs are rising," says Bill, whose sister and wife, a district nurse, help on the farm. Foot-and-mouth affected him greatly, and still does. With no market for his bull calves, many had to be shot. Those he kept were eventually sold for a fraction of their normal price.

Nevertheless, Bill has decided to stick at farming for another five to 10 years until he retires, starting work every day at 4.20am and never having a day off. "It's 365 days a year. My wife and I haven't had a holiday for 34 years. But that's our life and we're committed to it." f

Turkey

Sarah Chapman admits she doesn't like turkeys much. She is gazing at 500 of the black, crazed-looking things, their ridiculous rubbery wattles flopping over their beaks like bloated worms, at her farm near Newtown, Powys. As well as being spectacularly ugly, they are also a tad thick. A fighter jet whines overhead, almost a daily event, and the potty birds start up a manic chorus of gobbling, necks extended, eyes stabbing wildly around.

Sarah does, however, enjoy watching them grow fat. She has already picked out a particularly corpulent hen for her Christmas dinner. By that time, of course, she will be more than ready for three hours of feasting with her feet up.

Turkeys have been part of the family for years. Each Christmas her grandfather, an arable farmer, produced 100 whites for his fellow villagers in Suffolk. When her father took over the farm, he increased the turkey production to 1,500 free-range white and bronze (the colour difference is in the feathers, not the flesh). He later switched to bronze only, as they proved more popular, eventually selling up to 3,000 every Christmas to butchers. Bronze had always been traditionally reared for Christmas until the white-feathered turkeys started being reared intensively in the Seventies.

Six years ago, with land at a premium, Sarah's parents decided to sell up and wait until prices fell to buy another farm. They moved to Wales, but her father, Hugh, decided not to risk farming in Britain and now rents land in Kenya, which he works. Sarah has been raising free-range bronze for Christmas at the family's 40-acre smallholding in Llandinam for the last three years. She orders the poults, which cost between £2.60 and £3.60, in January from an Essex hatchery, and picks them up at the end of June.

"You brood them like a hen would. The first seven days is the really crucial point. You have to get up in the middle of the night to check them every two or three hours because if the temperature suddenly drops, you have to turn up the gas heaters. You're absolutely knackered after the first week."

From 12 weeks, the turkeys are heavy enough not to fly away, and are let out on to grassland during the day. "I don't do anything special to fatten them up," says Sarah. "Because they're not forced to put on weight in a very short space of time, they get quite fat naturally and develop a strip of fat under the skin on the breast, which means they don't dry out when you cook them." The birds are killed by electric shock in the first week of December and hand-plucked while still warm to reduce damage to the flesh. "It's a family-run business so I get my dad back from Kenya, and my mum, and my brother back from Essex, and local friends, and we stand in the shed for three or four days," says Sarah. After being plucked, the birds are hung upside-down for a week, which allows the meat to mature.

They are sold directly to customers. A 12lb bird costs £23.88. "It's quite slow, there's more price resistance here than there is in Suffolk," says Sarah, who makes about £3,000 to £4,000 profit a year. She also works part-time arranging training courses, and has a quota to rear 90 sheep.

Sarah scans the birds, who are blissfully unaware that come December, they will be getting it, literally, in the neck. "You can't get attached to them, not when it comes to Christmas."

Ham

As the splendidly chubby Saddlebacks lollop up to the gate to greet us, ears at full flap, Roger Keen warns that there is one word that he doesn't like being uttered in front of his pigs. It starts with a "B" (and tastes rather yummy at breakfast with a dollop of brown sauce). One assumes Roger has the same sensibilities with the H word.

The period leading up to Christmas can get rather fraught at Keen's farm, Sandridge Farmhouse Bacon, in Bromham, Wiltshire, when orders peak for hams and bacon to wrap around turkeys. "There are people who say Christmas is a blinking nuisance. It is a very good thing from a trade point of view, but it is quite a strain keeping everyone happy. Tempers get a bit frayed, especially some of the old butchers," says Roger.

The farm keeps Large White and Landrace (traditional bacon varieties because of their long backs), as well as six Gloucester Old Spots and four Saddlebacks – both of which are more suitable for pork, as they are fatter. The 340 sows and 14 boars produce eight to 10 piglets each, twice a year.

"We will be slaughtering 200 pigs a week for four weeks leading up to Christmas, which is 1,600 gammons. Normally it's 150 a week. It does get manic," says Roger. To ensure there are enough gammons at Christmas, some of the pork is frozen in October before it is cured.

The pigs are fed on grain grown on the farm (the pig manure goes back on the fields), mixed with organic yogurt and beer yeast from the local brewery. At six months they are slaughtered at an abattoir, then returned to the farm for curing. Sandridge started curing its own meat commercially 15 years ago when two local processing factories closed down. When cured in the traditional Wiltshire way, the meat is hand-injected with brine (a mixture of salt, water and nitrite), which acts as a preservative and gives the bacon its colour, and is then soaked in the solution for several days. It is left for two weeks to mature.

With dry curing, the pork is packed in salt, or pickled in a salt, molasses and spice mixture, and left for up to 56 days. The farm smokes its bacon over smouldering oak and beech sawdust for two to three days.

Sandridge also produces six types of hams, including the Burham, which is cured with molasses and juniper for three months, and the Devyses, which is cured with beer. Some of the recipes have been handed down through the family. "The way we sell them is harder work but more satisfying," says Roger. They're sold to butchers or through the farm shop. "At farmers' markets it gives us a lift when people tell us they're pleased to buy something they really enjoy and remember. We provide an ingredient that's often missing: time. And although ours is a traditional method we don't charge silly prices," he says.

Does Roger like his pigs? "They're not bad. They're very intelligent. We've got boars that know how to undo doors. It's farming I'm a bit disenchanted with at the moment. We get so much red tape and hassle coming through from Defra [the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs]. I've had nearly enough of it. Sod them, is how I feel about it."

Roger employs around 20 staff, and his wife and daughter also work on the farm. But he predicts that soon there won't be many pig farmers left in Britain. Some have lost up to 20 per cent of their stock to a disease that has been devastating the pig industry. The price for bacon pigs is currently about 84p a kilo, which Roger was getting 20 years ago. He also blames cheaper imports, regulations that put up the costs of production and the strength of the pound. "When you're younger, you're always optimistic," says Roger, now in his sixties. "You think it will get better. I can assure you, my dear, that it won't – it'll get worse."

Cake

The sight of Ginny Mayall's wheat fields this summer would have made the toes of the average farmer curl heavenwards with horror. There, among the pale yellow stalks, were blue pools of cornflowers and deep red puddles of poppies – such a rare sight in Britain these days that people were stopping to take photographs. "It looked wonderful. We just had to clean the crop a bit more," says Ginny, an organic farmer and miller, whose stone-ground flour is baked into Christmas cakes and pies.

Her family has been at Pimhill, a dairy and arable farm of 770 acres near Shrewsbury, since the Twenties, producing milk, wheat and oats. In 1949, Ginny's father and grandfather were some of the first farmers to go organic, a technique then referred to as "compost grown".

"At that time there was a really big push to intensify agriculture because the government had been worried during the war that the country wasn't self-sufficient. But they decided that they didn't want to follow that route." The farm started milling commercially in the mid-Fifties. Three or four different varieties of wheat are blended and milled between two stones. The flour goes direct to bakers, customers or to wholesalers who supply the independent health-food trade.

Sue Gwilliam, the farm manager's wife, uses it in her Ultimate Organic Christmas Cake, part of a range of organic foods that she produces under the Get Real! label. She bakes 1,000 of the traditional cakes in October, which are sold through a distributor, Suma Wholefoods, to independent stores and health food shops. Local eggs, organic sugar, apricots, dates, and other dried fruit and even organic brandy go into the cakes.

Despite the loyalty of her customers, Ginny finds life as a farmer worrying. "The problem at the moment is that we are not able to return enough to invest in the farm," says the mother-of-three, who employs five full-time staff and three or four part-timers. Her husband is an architect. "We can only just cover the overheads. The real business now is marketing and hoping that someone is going to buy your crop at the end of the day."

For 12 years she ran a large, award-winning farm shop, but closed it last year after she feared that it might bring foot-and-mouth into the region. "We were attracting people from all over the place, from all the hotspots like Devon and Essex. I owed it to my neighbours [to close down the shop]," she says. They set up in Shrewsbury town centre instead, but the shop closed after six months.

Ginny is now looking at different ways of bringing in an income. The handsome farmhouse, which dates from 1584, has been used as a location for the television series Dalziel and Pascoe, and the proceeds paid for the stable block to be repaired. Ginny has now produced a CD of images of the property in the hope it will attract more film and television production companies.

"We are selling milk at the moment for less than the cost of production. When I joined the farm 20 years ago, wheat was £180 a tonne. Now it's £150. We've got a situation of oversupply with organic produce. Hopefully, that will even out. I'm a third-generation organic farmer and I've got to believe that the future will be positive."

Sprouts

Charles Tunnard admits that sprouts are not exactly sexy. They are, after all, largely responsible for that post-Christmas dinner pong usually blamed on the dog. Charles does, however, offer one relatively fascinating fact about them in their defence. There are more than a dozen varieties, all of which taste slightly different. Last year, he produced about 1,000 tonnes, which covered 200 acres at his farm, The Chestnuts, in Algarkirk, Lincolnshire. The county produces the most sprouts in Britain because of its favourable silty soil. The farm also grows cabbages, cauliflowers, broccoli, peas, potatoes and wheat.

Sprout planting begins at the end of March. Sequential planting of 15 different varieties to the end of June produces a spread of harvesting from the end of August to February. Those eaten at Christmas are planted mid- to late-May and are harvested either on the day or the day before they arrive in the shops. "Throughout most of the season we harvest on a six-day basis. In the 10-day run-up to Christmas it's 24 hours a day, every day, to cope with the demand," says Charles, who, as well as his cousin, employs four full-timers and six seasonal staff. "There's pressure. Whether it all pays at the end of the day is questionable. I don't dread it, but it probably knocks the enjoyment out of Christmas."

Does he think the image of sprouts will ever improve? "I think the sprouts we are producing today are different from the old, traditional sprouts, which were much larger with a stronger flavour. We're producing a far smaller, sweeter sprout these days."

Charles sells his crop to United Vegetables, a growers' co-operative whose customers include Waitrose and Sainsbury's. A third-generation farmer who has been in the business for 25 years, he says he "gets by" but does not make enough money to reinvest in his production of sprouts. "Price pressure is the worst thing. The cost of production is more, wages are going up, fuel is going up, distribution is going up and the return is probably less than we were getting 20 years ago. We're just one supplier – we're not strong enough to negotiate a stronger position. There are too many suppliers and too few customers." Faced with an ever-increasing variety of vegetables, the public is more likely to pass over the humble sprout. "Christmas is often the first time in the season that people eat them," he admits. E

Comments