Photograph by Scott Grummett for The Cornwall Project
Food has probably been one of the most talked about subjects in our daily lockdown lives. Where to shop? What to get? Do we stockpile? Where’s the flour? Yet, as we move slowly out of lockdown and on towards the reform of our food standards, the subject of food - the system, it's sustainability and it's producers - is something we all need to be considering more, much more.
Photograph by Halen Môn
Over the last few months, the food industry at all levels – from multiples to micro-producers – has witnessed dramatic shifts in the way it works, from adapting to new demands and short supplies, to reactive emotions and mutable restrictions, and as a result, we are starting to see fragilities in our food system. During that time, we have seen the food industry’s multiples impressively ride the wave of adversity, whilst further down the hierarchy, many of it’s small-scale producers have found themselves perilously close to sinking had it not been for their steadfast resilience, the monumental support of the British public buying more local and direct (whether that is local in area or local online, perhaps is another article altogether), and the close working relationships they have with one another. You can read about this spirit and support in the British Farmhouse Cheese industry, or in the small-scale arable farming sector, where millers like Gilchesters Organics are working with their bakeries to supply a nation with bread and flour. Another example is the tireless work performed by those in the livestock sector, specifically those sustainable farmers and whole-animal butchers, who have – and still are – working together to feed a localised nation during Covid-19. They have experienced an “incredible shift” in public support towards buying their produce; a trend, which they hope, will become the new normal. The following, highlights and shares stories from just a handful of those small-scale farmers and whole-animal butchers over the last few months, who are striving for a better, more sustainable future, and one that they hope has a small-scale food system. These, among thousands of others, are the type of producers in the food industry that we need to listen to and continually support.
Angus D. Birditt photographs of M. E. Evans Butchers
“It’s blown me away how brilliant the British public have been..."
Over in Cornwall, Matt Chatfield, a silvopasture (grazing amongst tree foliage) sheep farmer on his family’s two 40-hectare smallholdings in Cornwall, supplies his cull yaws (high-welfare, aged sheep) to restaurants via his local butchers, Philip Warren’s Butchers. As Covid-19 hit and restaurants closed, Matt was forced to adapt quickly, “I had to redirect a huge surplus of meat, around 60 whole cull yaw carcasses to other sources.” It was his strong relationship with the local butchers that made it possible for him to sell his cull yaws via their collaborative project ‘On the pass’, which sold the meat via social media and Philip Warren's online shop. Matt went from communicating with chefs and restaurant suppliers to talking directly to the British public. “It’s blown me away how brilliant the British public have been in buying our cull yaws. It’s been incredibly rewarding talking to customers direct, who have tried our meat and then sent back pictures of them cooking it.”
Ian, from Philip Warren’s Butchers, says whilst their wholesale has disappeared over lockdown, their retail sales have grown considerably, “Not necessarily because there are more customers coming into the shop or buying online, it’s because our same customers are buying more volume, as they are having to stay at home more, cook for themselves and their families.” He notes that they have also managed to reach out to those who would have normally gone to restaurants for their meat, collaborating with local farmers like Matt Chatfield and the restaurants they would normally supply to, such as, Pasture restaurant in Bristol. On the point of our food system, Ian says, “It is the labelling system that is flawed. It needs to change in our food system, it’s so basic and it’s not giving the consumer an informed choice – nothing on how the animal was bred and reared, nothing on it’s feed or whether it had it’s mother to suckle on.” He hopes what comes out of this lockdown is that people will realise that this is a farming nation; one that cannot just simply stop. “It’s a cycle, and you have to keep going. With these restaurant closures, we’ve had to adapt and redirect our sales to keep going.”
Photograph by Matt Austin for Pipers Farm
“it has been heartening to see farmers and food producers referred to as key workers. We have certainly felt far more appreciated and valued than ever before.”
Cross the border to Pipers Farm, a 50-acre family farm in Devon, demand for their meats soared over lockdown, which led them to employ more people than ever. “We saw customers who have shopped with us on and off (often for special occasions) begin to shop with us weekly. We were overwhelmed with new customers looking for a way to feed their families with nutritious food when it was needed the most.” Pipers Farm currently offer a range of meats, dairy and pantry goods, such as, the ‘essentials’ and ‘family favourites’ on their online shop. Over their busiest days, the Pipers Farm team were continuously lifted by the community's feedback and wonderful spirit, being “a shining light that we will never forget.” What they have noticed over the last few months is a renewed sense of appreciation for their work, “It has been heartening to see farmers and food producers referred to as key workers. We have certainly felt far more appreciated and valued than ever before.” They also noted that the closer they bring their customers to the source of their food, the more confident they’ll be at buying meat, and the better it will be for their health, the welfare of the farmers, their animals, and eventually the environment. “This could mean that nationwide, we are able to build a tapestry of smaller-scale producers feeding their local community with a revolutionised rural economy, which in turn nurtures our environment... well that's the dream anyway.” Hear, hear!
Head north up the M5 and M6 to North Wales, where at the start of lockdown, M. E. Evans Butchers had to quickly make a decision whether to close or stay open to serve the community around them. Ben Roberts from M. E. Evans knew immediately that he wanted to support the community and help them through the strange and difficult times. “And as a result, the locals have supported us back incredibly. It has made the long and stressful days really worthwhile, and as a business, we will be forever thankful to them.” One of the main reasons why Ben and his fellow butchers at M. E. Evans were able to supply the community so effectively and efficiently with fresh local produce was “the strengths of working closely with local farmers and suppliers”; in other words, a small-scale food system.
Angus D. Birditt photographs of M. E. Evans Butchers
“by supporting local businesses like ours, we’ll keep our crafts, skills and food knowledge alive, whilst also seeing a community grow between the farmers, the butchers and the customers.”
Further north to Stockport, there’s Marcus Wilson from Littlewoods Butchers, another whole animal butcher (using every bit of the animal), who is working with local, sustainable meat suppliers. Over the last few months, Marcus has seen a huge rise in locals coming to his butchers shop to buy his meats. “I haven’t seen anything like this in our industry. The last 15-20 years in our industry has seen the footfall continually drop, yet now we are getting 100 new faces a week. It’s incredible really.” He hopes to see this trend of buying more local grow even more, “By supporting local businesses like ours, we’ll keep our crafts, skills and food knowledge alive, whilst also seeing a community grow between the farmers, the butchers and the customers.” However, Marcus does have concerns that people will go back to buying their meats in the supermarket, “But I do hold out for many staying; seeing the amount of hard work that goes into sustainable farming and butchering could sway the customers to make us their new normal”. When asked about government guidelines or help with the implementation of restrictions, many of the farmers and butchers said that they found – if any – government advice to be “minimal and confusing at best.” Deciphering what they could from the government's guidelines, the majority of them acted on their experiences and instincts as food producers with high levels of food hygiene and animal welfare already in place.
Back down in the South East, Gala Bailey-Barker, a farmer and shepherd from Plaw Hatch Farm, a 200-acre biodynamic farm on the edge of the Ashdown Forest, tells of how they saw an increase of 40% for their meats over the last few months, which was welcomed but raised the question of keeping up with the demand. Gala mentions that many small-scale, sustainable farmers have struggled to find local abattoirs, so have had to travel far distances to slaughter their livestock. This creates added costs for the farmer, has an environmental impact, and also causes more stress on the animals having to be transported sometimes hundreds of miles to be slaughtered. In addition, for many of the small-scale farmers, who have had an increase in demand for their meats, they have had to go on a long waiting list for their livestock to be butchered, as smaller abattoirs can’t keep up with the new demand. Gala suggests, “It will be more efficient to have more, smaller abattoirs or mobile ones that can come directly onto the farm” – support for the latter being headed by the Sustainable Food Trust.
Photograph by Littlewoods Butchers
So, it seems that the presence of Covid-19 over the last few months has really shed light on the fact that in many areas of our food system, change is in order for it to be more sustainable, and by supporting a small-scale food system - buying more locally-sourced, sustainable produce where and when you can from producers like our local arable and livestock farmers, fishermen and fisherwomen, butchers, cheesemakers and growers - is a great place to start. It will create a better understanding of where our food comes from, build relationships with those who are growing it, understand their needs, build more trust in what we’re eating, all the while creating community. It's certainly true that we all need to be eating less meat, but better meat. It may cost more to buy, but that extra 15-25% will be supporting a rural economy, sustainable producers, local communities, farming heritage, and ultimately the planet. John Lewis-Stempel suggests in his article for UnHerd that we need to send “all school children at the age of 16 to visit an organic mixed farm of livestock and crops,” which would certainly help build that knowledge of where our food comes from and inspirit more children to work in the rural sector.
We have also seen what the British public are capable of when they are called upon to arms to buy more locally-sourced, sustainable food; they support with passion. Yet, as we move further away from lockdown restrictions – which seem more smoke and mirrors than anything concrete – these producers need our continued support. They champion high animal welfare, extensive and nature-friendly farming, a more prolific rural economy, a preservation of craft and knowledge, and a sustainable, small-scale food system. Now it’s up to us as consumers to continue championing them for a better, more sustainable future.
Photograph by Scott Grummett for The Cornwall Project
What can you do to help?
There is no better time than now - with the current trade deals in the UK that could threaten our level of food standards - to support and create a smaller food system, that's buying food from those who pride themselves on high food safety standards and high animal welfare. Here are 5 ways to help, suggested by the Nature Friendly Farming Network:
1. Shop local and sustainable - find local shops, markets and farmers selling direct
2. Work or volunteer on a farm – the UK is facing a potential shortage of 80,000 workers due to Covid-19.
3. Join the nature-friendly farming movement for free – keep up to date on the news and how you can get involved.
4. Try not to waste – over 1/3 of our food around the world is thrown away, only buy want you need and don’t stockpile.
5. Celebrate local farmers doing extraordinary things – those sustaining nature, share their stories #NatureFriendlyFood
If you want to find sustainable producers to support, Farms to Feed Us is a fantastic project that has built a database of these producers, which is ever-growing. There is also Nature Friendly Farming Network, a great resource in learning about sustainable farming, and finding out which farmers are helping biodiversity and the regeneration of good soil by using such methods as mob grazing, bi-cropping, companion cropping, and no-tilling.
A huge thanks goes to The Cornwall Project, Philip Warren Quality Butchers, Pipers Farm, M. E. Evans Butchers, Littlewoods Butchers, Plaw Hatch Farm, Farms to Feed Us, Nature Friendly Farming Network and UnHerd for their time and information.