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Greetings from the Yorkshire Dales. Like much of the country now, the yellowed landscape is greening and the earth softening. For the past month we have watched the forecast every evening hoping for rain, but now those hot days seem long ago as we await Autumn. Many farmers in these parts continue to gather silage intended for the animals' winter feed, a vital job this winter given the horrendous situation in Ukraine.
It is going to be a difficult winter and I was touched by the powerful response to my update last month. Thank you to all those who wrote to me expressing their concern at the precarious state of British farming and food supply. I do read all your correspondence and reply to as many as I can. So far, I have received no reply from Rishi Sunak nor Liz Truss. I will let you know when I do.
I think it was the bleak tone of my message - 'there's more money in death than life' - that caught the zeitgeist. This month, I want to strike a more positive note amid the pressures many are facing across society. To do so, I want to revisit a moment from last summer, when pastures were greener, and reflect on our journey so far.
In July 2021, friend and supplier Stuart Raw contacted me to let me know he had received a phone call - a herd of rare breed Gloucester cattle were imminently going to slaughter. "You want 'em?" asked the caller, who had heard through the grapevine of our efforts to boost rare breeds. Time was of the essence to save the herd, otherwise they'd be lost forever, and Stuart didn't hesitate to say yes.
Strikingly beautiful, with distinctive horns and a stripe of white on their brown-black hides, the cattle now graze in Wensleydale though they were developed over hundreds of years on the fertile plains of the Severn Valley. Soon afterwards, Stuart purchased a pedigree bull, and four new calves have since been born.
For many years, reviving heritage breeds was a labour of love for a few specialists. Thanks to the efforts of these farmers who kept the old herd books alive, our business model today rests upon selling heritage-breed meat and raising awareness among the British public that these creatures have a place in our diets. To save them, we must value them, and eat them.
The bloodlines of livestock are the British Isles' great contribution to global cuisine, and outside of those specialist circles, it's astonishing just how little is known about our heritage of husbandry. These animals were bred over centuries to suit the geography of every corner of our islands. From the rolling hills of Hampshire to the storm-battered hillsides of St Kilda, they were bred for very specific purposes. I don't think it's a coincidence that wherever indigenous livestock breeds are to be found, they somehow look like they belong to the landscape.
In the Dales that's the Swaledale sheep, hugging the valley sides and appearing out of the mists. Further North in the Borders, Galloway cattle graze on the windswept pastures all year round.
This continuous improvement under the watchful eye of Victorian livestock men saw these animals exported across the world. They were well-placed to thrive in a range of terrains. Around the world they are celebrated, contributing much to international cuisine. In Japan, Kurabuto pork is derived from the Berkshire breed. The first pigs arrived in Japan in the 1860s as a gift for the emperor. While Berkshire pigs remain on the Rare Breeds Survival Trust watchlist in this country, the breed is in rude health in Japan. Meanwhile, 'traditional' Hereford cattle - a rare sight on our own pastures - comprise the majority of the national herd of Uruguay.
The legacy of British livestock is complicated, despite this global success. The pampas and prairies of the New World are now crowded with livestock who don't belong there, and rainforest is being cleared to provide the soya beans to feed their enormous appetite. This unnatural approach to food is compounded by the automated systems that increasingly oversee the gigantic food lots. Ultimately, much of this meat ends up processed beyond recognition.
The news that Britain has over one thousand 'mega farms' - those that hold more than 125,000 birds reared for meat, or 82,000 egg-laying hens, 2,500 pigs, 700 dairy cows or 1,000 beef cattle - serves as a reminder that industrialised agriculture is not something that happens in other places. In this country, the sad reality is our extinct heritage breeds are the ones that could not adapt to the vast scales of these systems. These breeds are often smaller and slower to mature. It's thanks to the efforts of farmers like Stuart, Britain has come a long way in reversing this long slide to a utilitarian, unexceptional food supply chain and food culture. Today, our heritage breeds are thriving as home cooks and chefs recognise and discover the intrinsic flavours and quality. Reared in the landscapes they were bred for, our herds and flocks efficiently turn marginal pasture into nutritious food, representing an efficient use of ground in this country.
I'm often asked if my vision is to have two systems of food production in parallel: one cheap and for the masses, the other expensive and exclusive, with produce that reflects the nuances of seasons, breeds, and provenance. But we can't afford to settle for such a two-tier approach. This summer's drought, the war in Ukraine, and the surging price of fuel, have all demonstrated just how fragile the cheap food supply chain is, never mind the disastrous environmental effects. We must build an equitable food culture around local, seasonal food and better meat.
We've already shown there's both appetite for a better way of doing things among the public and that it's possible through new technologies to scale a food supply system that allows nuance and flavour to be celebrated. These two trends are unprecedented, and I believe will only accelerate the change to cooking. Paying respect to good meat and ensuring minimal wastage is part of this.
For me, this is heartening, and a cause for optimism that the progress made in the last decades will not be lost. Afterall, the White Park have been in these islands since before Roman times, and I am sure our current struggles pale in comparison to some of those of the past.
As ever if you have any comments, please contact me on [email protected] I always take time to read all feedback.
Founder & CEO of Farmison & Co