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Greetings from the Yorkshire Dales. Firstly I must air my concern with what we have all been witnessing in the last few days in Ukraine. In 1956 my father and grandmother experienced something very reflective during the Russian invasion of Hungary known as the Hungarian Uprising. My thoughts are with the people of Ukraine.
The daffodils are slowly waking up and the fragrant wild garlic that blooms in the woods around Ripon isn't far away either. Spring is an optimistic time of year, and I am feeling buoyed by the astonishing success of our 'Save Our Bacon' campaign.
This is our effort to help farmers in East Yorkshire by selling half and quarter free-range pigs, in the process easing the bottlenecks with our own butchery capacity. Incredibly, we sold through our first release almost instantly, but thanks to demand and surplus pork, we have more available to shop today.
It is with this crisis in mind that this month I wish to discuss the transition to a resilient food supply.
To my mind, the problems in the pig industry just go to show how fragile sectors of our food economy currently are. These issues are being largely caused by labour shortages and the resulting inability to process pigs as part of the intensive just-in-time system of fattening and slaughter. Keeping pigs for longer than planned is an expensive business; the reputation of pigs for appetite is not undeserved. Keeping them longer also results in the animal putting on more and more fat - anathema to the supermarket supply chain. The only choice for many is to cull healthy animals.
Our long-standing free-range pork supplier Anna was initially unaffected by the crisis. This changed when Anna stepped in to help fellow farmers by taking surplus weaners from neighbouring farms into her own extensive free-range systems where there was plenty of space. This resulted in Anna needing an outlet for so much spare pork and that's where our butchery and online shop come in.
There will be more bumps in the road for British farming ahead, however I am so optimistic because this campaign just goes to show how far the British public are willing to back our farmers. This will be crucial in the coming years.
The truth is it will take more than quick fixes like this to set British farming on the path to a structurally resilient and sustainable future. Already, there is another shock brewing amid the wider cost of living crisis. Like the rest of society, farmers are contending with dramatically rising prices, in this case fertilisers, feeds, and silage. As has always been the case, farmers will be under severe pressure by large retailers to squeeze more out of less. Price rises aren't easily absorbed by farmers; the margins are already very thin.
In such circumstances, making British farming shock resistant is easier said than done. It's hard for farmers to think long term as the goalposts shift so quickly and implementing new ways of doing things takes many years. Managing a farm is a highly complex affair, often featuring a great deal of experimentation on the behalf of the farmer to improve practices with success counted over many years. Planning rotational grazing, new hedgerows, and the planting of the right trees in the right spot takes careful planning - and that's if you've got the appropriate land to do so. Managing the future of a herd or flock is also a long game; desirable traits are selected and encouraged over generations.
There must be public backing for our farmers to make this transition to regenerative and sustainable systems. This is far from simple at present. Are we witnessing the end of cheap food as we know it? This is something I've long campaigned for, albeit as part of a gradual and managed transition. The social and environmental costs of this 'nutrition' are enormous while British health and food culture continues to suffer for it. Today, its demise is happening far sooner than I ever anticipated and the problem is that it is not improvements to quality and standards that are driving price rises. For many there will be difficult choices ahead about what they can or cannot afford to eat. Checking how that food is produced will be a lesser priority.
It is deeply ironic that it is the spiralling cost of fossil fuels that may setback our progress towards a more environmentally sustainable system. That said, it was the 'oil shocks' of the 1970s that unleashed far reaching economic and political changes. My abiding memory of those times is British food culture was in a bad state. If you wanted to go out to a restaurant there were very few options whatsoever. Food then was fuel; heavy and hearty.
As a country we've come a long way and I believe we have taken our place at the table of the great international food nations. Today the British 'foodie' takes respect for food very seriously. Nevertheless, improvements to how we farm, cook, and eat must continue. It may well be that we are all going to have to eat less meat in the future, but, as I've always maintained, who wouldn't want to ensure the meat they ate tasted great, was nutritious, and supported a sustainable means of production?
This doesn't have to be fillet steak. We've built our business on heritage breeds and paying respect to the whole animal. My Master Butcher Andrew Carrington always recommends the cross-cut chuck steak as the ideal way to feed a family sustainably with quality nutrition and bags of flavour. It's Andrew's go to for mid-week meals, and he slices it up at home and makes it into a casserole or a chilli. That works out at £1.75 per serving for eight servings. A whole chicken is also a brilliant way to make your money go further. A roast will feed comfortably feed four adults, and then you've got enough meat left over to make a warming soup or a pie. Here are our recipes for roasting a chicken, and getting the most out of the left overs:
There will be many twists and turns ahead, but with the Save Our Bacon campaign's astonishing success, I am convinced the public's demand for better meat from sustainable farms will only grow.
CEO & Founder, Farmison & Co