Where does our food come from? Open Farm Sunday

Where does our food come from?  It seems many of our children haven’t a clue.  A few days ago saw the publication of research http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-22730613 which suggests that a significant proportion of children have no idea about the difference between wheat and meat, or dairy and plants.

This weekend could give families all over the country a chance to change that – Sunday 9 June is Open Farm Sunday.  The weather forecast is pretty good for much of the country.  With so many farms, large and small, all over the country taking part, you’re never far from a participating farm.  Take the opportunity (and the children) to visit, and maybe start making the connections  between what happens on the farm, and what we all eat.  If you eat food, surely you want to know more about where it comes from?  Full details at http://www.farmsunday.org

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Glamping, North Devon style – the Vintage Vardos at Fisherton Farm

It started with a Tweet.  I was in search of a half lamb for the freezer, and knowing what a wonderful lot of smallholders, farmers and other interesting folk follow me on Twitter (@FabrikantArt, by the way), I tweeted asking if anyone reasonably local to West Somerset could help.  I promptly had a response from Gavin Doyle at Fisherton Farm, asking if I’d be prepared to come as far as North Devon.  I checked out his website (www.fishertonfarm.com) and knew I just had to follow it up.

Gavin and Jemma (also an artist) aren’t just farmers.  Sure, they have a herd of pedigree Simmenthal beef cattle and a flock of Zwartbles sheep (of which more later), but they have also developed the most amazing concept in glamping – glamorous camping, for the uninitiated – in the form of a secluded dell with three vintage vardos, or traditional bow-topped gypsy caravans.

Arriving on a gloriously sunny day in early April, we followed Gavin’s directions and parked at the farm.  We were immediately welcomed by Gavin and Jemma, and before they could even get the kettle on, by the world’s tiniest shepherdess, who insisted that we come and meet the orphan lambs who had been bottle-fed and were now skipping around the barn – a terrific advertisement for the value of farm life for bringing up small children.

Tea drunk and cake eaten, we were taken to meet the cattle – including the very handsome and truly vast bull – who were still indoors as, after this everlasting winter, the grass is still not ready for them.  Simmenthals are beautiful, placid creatures with serious faces and long tan fringes of hair in their ears, and in return for coming to inspect some new humans they were happy for us to admire them, rub their noses and scratch their white, wavy foreheads.

Omorga Veron 1

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Then we walked up the lane and into a rural idyll – when visitors arrive to stay in the caravans, they leave their cars at the farmhouse and Jemma walks with them up the lane, while their luggage follows courtesy of Gavin and a vintage red tractor.  Up the lane, with no idea of where we were going – left into the field gate, remembering to close it behind us, down the field, round the end of the fence – and there they are!  Three brightly-painted vintage Gypsy caravans, grouped together at the foot of a sloping meadow, complete with little stove-chimneys and tiny curtained windows.

Fisherton Farm by Andrew Ogilvy Photography

Fisherton Farm by Andrew Ogilvy Photography

Fisherton Farm by Andrew Ogilvy Photography

I think the pictures speak for themselves – the whole concept is utterly charming.  The quiet is profound – the walk from the farm is only a couple of minutes, but you walk into another world.  Just below the caravans, in the bottom of the dell, is a real campsite complete with fire, seating under an awning, camp-cooking facilities (all you need – pans, crockery – is here, in large hampers), even a rope-swing over the brook.  In summer, when the trees are in leaf, the campsite is protected from all but the very worst weather.  Think Famous Five meets the Boden catalogue, with the charm and styling of Pretty Nostalgic Magazine, and you’re getting the idea.

Fisherton Farm by Andrew Ogilvy Photography

Dear reader, I must make a confession.  I hate camping.  I decided at 21 that I was too old for roughing it.  I simply could not see the point of being uncomfortable and away from proper sanitation, when you’re supposed to be enjoying yourself on holiday.  The sheer gorgeousness of  the Vintage Vardos is evidenced by my comment in the car on the way home, that I could actually quite see myself having a wonderful break there.  The vans themselves are a joy – lovingly restored with amazing attention to detail, fabulous colours and textiles, and surprisingly Tardis-like in their spaciousness.  The setting is delightful, peaceful and beautiful, with (should you actually want to drag yourself out of the hammock between the trees and go exploring) swathes of beautiful North Devon and Exmoor just a short drive away.  Even the boring bathroom bits are quirky and effective – a shingled hut at the top of the meadow which boasts two composting toilets (no, don’t groan – these really work and are not smelly, I promise!) complete with library, and a shower (based on a huge vintage 1940s shower pan).  Granted, you probably wouldn’t want to stay here in the middle of winter, but in the summer months I can’t imagine a more romantic, charming and memorable experience.

Fisherton Farm by Andrew Ogilvy Photography

The camp is rented out in its entirety, so it’s just your party there at any one time – the vardos can sleep up to 12 .  See the website www.fishertonfarm.com for more details.  If you are suffering from holiday ennui, are tired of city life, want to spend good old-fashioned quality time with the children, or want to get away from it all with a group of friends, this might just be the answer!

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Oh yes, the sheep.  As if I’d forget!  (Anyone who follows my textile art blog www.TheFabrikantBlog.com will know that I am, to put it mildly, a bit obsessed with sheep).  The original purpose for going to Fisherton Farm was to pick up half a lamb for the freezer.  The resident sheep at the farm are Zwartbles, a large bitter-chocolate brown breed with white socks and a white blaze down the face (Dutch zwart=black, bles=blaze) which were developed in the Netherlands for both milk and meat.  Being half-Dutch myself, I am especially interested in this breed.  I have worked with Zwartbles fleece and wool, and was keen to try their meat too – it is dark and lean, and apparently even people who aren’t keen on lamb like it!  I have yet to put it to the test (the first installment is defrosting as I write) but I’m looking forward to it very much – and will report in due course!

Musings on farming and food, in the light of recent weather-related disasters in the UK

All views in this blog are my own.  Some people will, no doubt, disagree strongly with some or all of them.

As I write this, farmers in parts of the UK are still digging animals, many of them dead, out of snowdrifts.  Carcasses cannot be disposed of, because the roads are still impassable.  In at least one case the RSPCA has now become involved, apparently  because walkers are complaining about seeing dead animals.  I must admit this incenses me  – having lived in North Wales, where tourists in flip-flops used regularly to venture up Cader Idris, which is really suitable only for experienced hill walkers with specialist equipment and clothing, and then have to be air-lifted off the mountain when they got into difficulties, at vast expense to the taxpayer and personal risk to the helicopter crews, I have no patience at all with walkers who go out in hazardous conditions.  It is selfish and arrogant.  I have even less patience with those who want the pretty scenery but come over all indignant when they are brought face to face with the harsh reality of life and death in the country.  Surely it cannot have escaped their attention that in the last couple of weeks parts of the farming community have experienced an almost unprecedented  crisis, on top of 18 months of  weather related misery?  And that this has resulted in the death of thousands of animals?  Presumably these are the same kind of people who let their dogs run loose near pregnant sheep, refusing to believe that, to a sheep, dear little Bonzo is a wolf, and that their precious leisure activity can cause ewes to abort, threatening the farmer’s already precarious livelihood (not to mention the welfare of the sheep).  That’s always assuming Bonzo doesn’t actually savage the sheep, which is a very common occurrence.

The attitude of wider society, and civil authority such as the Welsh Assembly Government, to the recent snow crisis, seems to me to be part of an at best ambivalent attitude to farming and farmers which is, I feel, a significant threat to our national future.  Figures seem to vary enormously, but it is safe to say that in the UK we only produce about half the food we eat.  Therefore, should we be involved in a war, or should international transportation be interrupted through energy supply problems, industrial action, terrorism etc we would be in a poor position to feed ourselves, and the shelves of our shops and supermarkets would soon be very empty indeed.  However, addressing this does not seem to be a priority for government, nor does it seem to figure in our national security policy.  It should.

Not only are we, collectively, content to make ourselves hostages of fortune in this way, but we also have a very negative attitude to those farmers who are providing the food that is still produced in the UK.  Farmers are,  variously, regarded as rich, moaners, getting fat on handouts from the EU, preventing free access to the countryside (I sometimes wonder if the people who moan about this would be happy for complete strangers to come wandering through their gardens, leaving the gates open and dropping litter everywhere?), and (the greatest sin in this country of ‘animal lovers’) being cruel to animals.  The recent thread on BBC Radio 2’s Facebook page brought the latter element out in force.  Apparently it is cruel to raise animals for meat, and also cruel to let them get caught in freak unseasonal blizzards, and no sense of these being mutually contradictory.  Farmers can’t win.

The reality of farming life is very mixed.  Yes, there are prosperous farmers.  Generally in the east of England, with large arable farms where economies of scale help.  But even they are not immune to 18 months of relentless wet, leaving their land underwater and their crops rotting in the fields.  In the north and west, farms are generally smaller, more livestock based, and rural poverty is a reality.  Yes, they own large chunks of land with big houses on them.  Yes, they drive 4wds.  But the value of the land is tied up, the houses are unheatable, and the 4wds are not a status symbol but a necessity for getting around off-road (which is where the animals will be, obviously).  Diversification (adding value eg ice cream, or B&B’s), farmers markets and farmers wives working off the farm to bring in some money have become a necessity for survival, not a choice.  Foodbanks, ironically, are a lifeline in many farming communities.

I don’t begin to understand the complexities of EU farming payments.  Fortunately, farmers have learned to, although the amount of time and energy this (and other paperwork) takes diverts them from the core business of raising crops and livestock.  None of this would be necessary if we had not, as a society, bought into the idea (some time post-WWII) that food should be cheap.  The supermarkets seem to have become effectively the Ministry of Food, telling us what we can have and at what price, and keeping farm gate prices so low (eg milk) that any connection between the cost of production and the cost to the consumer has been lost.  We have been terrorised into thinking that it’s only the benevolence of the supermarkets which prevents the UK consumer from starving, as local shops and producers are all hideously expensive.  Well, it simply isn’t true.  Readers of this blog will remember my own fears about moving to the country, away from supermarkets, at a time when we were moving from two incomes to one.  In fact my food expenditure is down at least 30%, and my food miles are down more as I shop locally.  I appreciate that those who live in the middle of London, say, may have fewer local producers than here in Somerset, but towns have markets!  Food shoppers of the UK, you have CHOICES – you don’t have to believe everything the supermarkets tell you.  Explore the alternatives.  Yes, if you work 9-5 you may have to work a bit harder at accessing other sources, but it can be done, and really, what is more important than the food we eat?  The cheap food culture has led, inevitably, to a devaluation of food, from something precious around which family life revolves, to processed fuel grazed on the move or in front of the telly.  The demise of the dining room, and the dining table, from the homes of the UK tells its own story.

It’s time to put food back into the place it deserves in our lives.  You are what you eat – on that basis most of us are Chorleywood ‘bread’ and processed meat, with lashings of fat and sugar.  Somehow, we have, as a nation, to re-learn to value what we eat, and the people who make it and bring it to us: the farmer, the butcher, the baker, the greengrocer, the farm shop, the deli.  The vet, the abattoir manager, the shearer, the AI technician, the scanner.  The milker, the mechanic, the cheesemaker, the brewer, the shepherd, the sheepdog.  The people working unsociable hours to get us fed, on the milkround, in the corner shop, in the milking parlour, in the lambing shed.  And in the last fortnight, out on the hill digging animals out of snowdrifts.

The government isn’t going to make that change.  Left-wing governments tend to have it in for farmers, and the current one is too full of urban millionaires to be able to relate to what’s going on in the real world.  The supermarkets aren’t going to make that change.  Their entire business model depends on the status quo.  It’s down to you and me.  I fully appreciate that those living on benefits or the minimum wage won’t have the option to spend a little more time, energy or (sometimes) money on buying local and cooking from scratch.  Many people, raised on two generations of the supermarket and processed food, no longer know how to cook from raw ingredients, and since cooking is no longer on the school curriculum, I am hugely worried about that too, for the future health of the nation.

But just because some cannot, it doesn’t mean that the rest of us – middle class, middle income and above – shouldn’t be taking responsibility and doing our bit for change.  I am now no longer routinely doing food shopping in supermarkets.  If I really can’t get something locally, or in the village Co-Op, then I try Waitrose (those two chains have a slightly less awful record of dealing with the farming community).  But that’s only every 2 or 3 months.   I try not to eat out of season or imported fruit and veg – and as a result, this winter I have discovered swede, turnips and curly kale, none of which I had regularly eaten before.  I am buying all my meat from local butchers and farm shops, and trying out cuts which are simply not available in supermarkets.  I WON’T buy New Zealand lamb while we still produce UK lamb (as I write this, on Easter Sunday, this evening’s leg of Exmoor lamb is slow cooking with garlic and rosemary.  Bought from the farm shop, and cheaper than the NZ leg for sale in the Co-Op).  And I think we have eaten better this winter than ever before.

My small changes in buying and cooking habits may not, by themselves, make the difference to making UK farming viable, thriving and a valued part of the nation’s economy and life, but what if you did it too? And you?  And maybe you?

Buy local.  Failing that, buy regional or national.  Buy fresh and cook real food, not processed.  Enjoy seasonal treats (asparagus, strawberries, plums, apples) fresh when in season, don’t eat imported versions all year round.  Find your local farm shop, butcher, market.  Ask where the produce comes from.  Make it clear to your retailers that you value local produce.  Be prepared to make a bit more of an effort to get good, fresh food, produced in the UK (and ideally in your county) onto your dining table.  You are what you eat.

If we don’t, farming in the UK will continue to decline, and we will have no-one to blame but ourselves.  After 18 months of relentless wet, flooding, poor grass growth (grass=meat), rising feed prices, higher vet bills, and now, in many places, huge losses at what should have been the most optimistic part of the farming year, the question must be why on earth anyone stays in farming.  The rates of bankruptcy and suicide speak for themselves.  We simply have to take responsibility for supporting our farming industry, or we will all starve.