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What are ancient grains and why should we eat them?

1st January 2018

Ancient grains are back in popular favour. A trend that we reckon will only continue to rise. But what even is an ancient grain? And why should we care? Here’s our guide to why we’ve gone crazy for them, their benefits and how to cook them.

What are ancient grains and why should we eat them?

Grains make up more than half of the world’s daily calorific intake. Not to mention the vast amount that also goes to feed livestock – which, in turn, we eat too. It goes without saying that without grain we’d have very different eating habits. And if the world’s grain supply were to suddenly stop tomorrow? We’d be in big trouble.

What are ancient grains and why should we eat them?

“We eat wheat that is dead”

Wheat, corn and rice are the main players – the ones we humans eat the most of. These are crops that have been selectively bred for thousands of years, developed for their resistance to disease and ability to produce high yields. The problem lies with how intensively these main crops are grown, designed to rely heavily on fertilisers and herbicides to grow – damaging not just for our health, but our soils, water and environment as a whole – and to last longer on our shelves. Rather than breeding these crops for their flavour or nutrition, our main source of energy has been bred simply for the quantity it yields, and the economic return it provides big agro-business.

“The problem is we don’t eat true wholewheat. We eat wheat that is dead and denuded so it’s shelf-stable. We lost the taste of wheat and all its health benefits. And for something we eat so much of, it really is a true disaster. If we’re going to change the food system, we have to change how we grow and consume wheat.”

– Dan Barber

What are ancient grains?

And that’s where these so-called ancient grains come in. These refer to grains – like, spelt, barley and millet – and pseudo-cereals – like, quinoa, buckwheat and amaranth – that have been little changed by selective breeding. Meaning, they are genetically very similar, both in terms of flavour, nutrition and yield, to the grains our ancestors would have eaten centuries ago.

Forget superfoods, it’s all about diversity

What are ancient grains and why should we eat them?

Naked Barley growing at Wakelyns Agroforestry – a research farm run by Professor Martin Wolfe a couple of miles away from Hodmedod’s HQ in Suffolk, it’s the perfect place for organic trial plots. This enables the team to try out new and ancient grain varieties on a very small scale and to look at how existing crops might work in different systems.

It’s not because they’re ancient that they’re better – if anything that tag is meaningless – it’s their diversity and what this can bring to our diets and farming systems that’s the key”, stresses Josiah Meldrum, co-founder of Hodmedod’s, the pioneering British suppliers of unusual and underused grains.

“More genetically diverse farm systems, that include a range of cereals in a long rotation, tend to be more resilient to disease and pests. These older varieties also have deeper roots and are better able to draw more of their water and nutrients from the soil than the input-hungry short rotation monocultures we’ve come to rely on”.

What are ancient grains and why should we eat them?

After a global search for seed, a couple of years of trials and several months working out how to flake and mill it, Hodmedod’s have welcomed organic naked barley into their range.

These ancient grains are often more nutritious (a little more exciting) too. A good example is naked barley. Named so because unlike normal barley, the grain falls from the ear without the need for polishing. This also means that, unlike polished or pearled barley, when you eat naked barley you’re eating a whole grain.

Naked barley was a popular crop among Bronze and Iron Age farmers because it’s easy to prepare for milling and eating immediately after harvest, but by the mid 20th-century it had practically disappeared, with wheat taking its place. However, naked barley is a crop that requires half as much water per tonne as wheat and needs far less fertiliser. It’s high in complex carbohydrates, especially beta-glucan – a soluble fibre that has been shown to reduce blood cholesterol. Also when compared to wheat, it’s higher in protein – around 15 or 16% as compared to 10 or 12% for wheat.

“It might have been forgotten by modern farmers and millers, but it can really fit into today’s farming systems, and while it doesn’t produce as high a yield as many other cereals, what you do get from it is far more beneficial to both our health and the environment”, says Josiah.

Enter the UK’s first home-grown crop of quinoa

What are ancient grains and why should we eat them?

Sandoval quinoa crops being grown in East Anglia for Hodmedod’s.

The trick is in getting people to buy it. In the UK, farmers legally have to rotate their crops. Meaning, they alternate between crops that exhaust the supply of soil nutrients with those that replenish them. But they do so on the assumption that anything that isn’t wheat will make a financial loss. There simply isn’t a big enough market for selling alternative grains at a profit.

Thanks to Hodmedod’s and a handful of other pioneering farmers and chefs, change is happening to promote the benefits of unusual and under-used grains, encouraging people to use their purchasing power and incentivising farmers to diversify the grains they sell. Hodmedod’s are selling the UK’s first-ever crop of quinoa, Gilchesters Organics grow and mill grains from einkorn to rye, and Sharpham Park’s organic spelt is sold as flour, porridge and grain.

As consumers, the key is in varying what we eat and supporting the farming systems that enable us to do that – farming systems that are moving away from a one-size-fits-all approach, and rethinking what they grow so it’s more in tune with agro-ecological principles, precisely by introducing a diversity of plants to the land. Helping them to do that could start, simply, with the grains we eat.

Here are a few to start.

5 ancient grains (and a pseudo-cereal) to try in 2018

Spelt

What are ancient grains and why should we eat them?

Spelt is an ancient member of the wheat family and a hybrid of emmer wheat and goat grass. It grows five-feet high whereas modern wheat has been bred down to a more machine-friendly waist height. Nutty in taste, it’s full of fibre and a tasty addition to stews and soups. Pearled spelt is made by bouncing it over five rotating stones which remove the outer bran so it can absorb water and flavour when making risotto. Try Sharpham Park’s organic whole or pearled varieties, grown in Somerset.

Einkorn

What are ancient grains and why should we eat them?

Einkorn is the earliest type of wheat that humans grew and ate. Einkorn production completely disappeared in the UK until 2008, when Doves Farm started working with a small group of organic farmers to re-establish the production of einkorn. Higher in protein than commercial wheats, einkorn flour has a nutty flavour and makes great rustic style breads and pizza bases.   

Quinoa

What are ancient grains and why should we eat them?

Quinoa is actually a seed, not a grain, but it’s used in much the same way. Grown in Peru, Chile and Bolivia for thousands of years, quinoa formed the staple diet of the Incas. It’s a complete protein, which means it contains all nine essential amino acids, and it’s gluten-free. Try its black, red or white varieties in salads, use it to bulk out casseroles or as an alternative to rice or couscous. Try Hodmedod’s pioneering British quinoa.

Millet

What are ancient grains and why should we eat them?

Millet has a mild, sweet, nut-like flavour. A staple for a third of the world’s population, it’s most commonly eaten in India, China and Africa. It’s another gluten-free seed, a good source of protein and is high in fibre and B vitamins. Use it in place of oats to make porridge!

Amaranth

What are ancient grains and why should we eat them?

These tiny seeds are yet another great protein source and are also naturally gluten-free. You can use it much like quinoa, or in place of other grains in salads and soups, or try toasting them in a dry frying pan for added crunch to salads or breakfast bowls.

Intrigued? Here’s everything you need to know about amaranth.

Discover Hodmedod’s and Sharpham Park at farmdrop.com.

Farming

Seasonal fruit and veg to enjoy this month

1st December 2017

The annual British hungry gap may be fast approaching but there’s still plenty of variety in seasonal fruits and vegetables to get excited about. Here’s some inspiration to get you planning for the heart of winter.  

Brussels sprouts tops

seasonal fruits and vegetables

Long ignored, sprout tops were once destined to lie discarded in fields after harvest or fed to livestock. Thankfully, these lovely leaves are coming back into favour. Similar to spring greens, these tops wilt down deliciously – try chopping and sautéeing with onions, streaky bacon and chestnuts for a festive side. Or serve with fried eggs for Boxing Day breakfast.  

Spring greens

seasonal fruits and vegetables

Despite their name, spring greens grow in winter too – these are grown by the guys at Goldhill Organic Farm in Dorset, pictured here. Part of the brassica family, spring greens are sweeter and more delicate than the rest of their cabbage cousins. They do well sautéed with butter and a squeeze of lemon juice, and are full of Vitanin C. Ideal fodder for winter.

Leafy clementines  

seasonal fruits and vegetables

Juicy seasonal clementines, from our organic wholesalers at Langridge Organic farm, make for the best stocking fillers.

Parsnips

seasonal fruits and vegetables

A must-have for Christmas dinner, these earthy, sweet veg are extra good when roasted with honey and mustard. We farmer Pete at a neighbouring farm to Purton House Organics to thank for these.

Carolus potatoes

seasonal fruits and vegetables

Our Carolus spuds come from Fred, the wonderful farmer at Home Farm Highgrove in Gloucestershire. He grows over 100 different organic crops, focusing in particular on potatoes of different varieties, of which these are one of them. Carolus potatoes are slightly floury and work especially well either baked or cut into chips.

Red alouette potatoes

seasonal fruits and vegetables

These red-skinned alouettes are a good all-rounder. Try them roasted for your Christmas dinner, or baked whole for a comforting winter supper.

Inspired? Head over here for more of our growers’ in-season fruit and veg and visit our guide on how to pick the perfect potato for your culinary needs as their season kicks off.

The availability of all seasonal fruits and vegetables are subject to – you’ve guessed it – seasonality, location, oh and the weather. Keep your eyes peeled to enjoy them at the height of their season!

Cooking Farming Thinking

The bird is the word: why are we so obsessed with chicken? And is it as healthy for us as we think?

27th November 2017

The bird is the word: why are we so obsessed with chicken?

Chicken is by far one of Britain’s favourite foods, accounting for half of our meat consumption.

Its rise in popularity is largely thanks to it now being incredibly cheap to buy. It’s also due to chicken’s superfood-like reputation as the low-fat, high protein, cancer-risk-free alternative to red meat.

However, the reality is that the pedestal on which we hold this white meat is at best meaningless and at worst harmful, because its low cost comes at a high-price for both the birds and for our health.

THE REALITY OF MODERN DAY CHICKEN FARMING

To meet consumer demand a staggering 950 million chickens are farmed in the UK each year.

But, that’s using the term ‘farm’ lightly, as more than 90% of poultry is reared in intensive conditions, with Jamie’s Food Revolution reporting that the number of higher-welfare chickens in the UK is at its lowest in a decade.

Commercial farming has become a very vertical industry. Globally, there is a handful of companies who breed fast-growing chickens, most commonly the Ross bird.

“[Huge processing plants] buy those birds and supply them to contract farms to rear them. They provide the feed and even tell the farmer what the temperature inside the sheds should be,” says Compassion In World Farming’s chief policy advisor, Peter Stevenson.

“These farms are so inhumane but there’s not really anything even a good farmer can do to improve conditions because it’s so tightly controlled.”

According to the RSPCA, if a newborn baby grew as fast as your average supermarket chicken by its third birthday it would weigh 28 stone.

“I don’t think people realise just how much these animals are suffering,” says RSPCA poultry welfare specialist, Kate Parkes.

The bird is the word: why are we so obsessed with chicken?

Fosse Meadows chicken cooked by Thomasina Miers. She says: “Given that chicken is the star of the show here, I’d advise buying something of good quality.”

 

HEALTH MYTHS DEBUNKED

Chicken is widely touted the go-to choice for pretty much any modern-day diet and fitness regime.

But we require a lot less protein than the media leads us to believe. A healthy person requires about 0.8 grams of protein per kilo of weight. So, someone who weighs 60-70 kilos needs around 50 grams a day, which is equivalent to around one and a half chicken breasts.

“Chicken is a good source of protein but so are lots of other foods you eat throughout the day like fish, eggs, beans, pulses, soya, nuts and dairy. These are also valuable sources of iron, zinc, vitamin B12, soluble fibre and omega-3 fatty acids, which are all essential for good health,” advises registered dietitian Christiana Pavlides.

Our insatiable appetite for chicken as a lean meat has been further reinforced by white meat also being less associated with cancer than iron-rich red meat.

But, it’s not a clear-cut case of white meat being better. Red meat is good for you – in moderation. The problem is that it now forms a substantial part of our everyday diet. Plus, red meat is typically found in a lot of unhealthy ‘junk food’, such as burgers.

The way animals are farmed also has a huge impact on their quality and nutritional value. People who are choosing cheap chicken for health reasons are being sorely misled.

“Chickens grown in really close proximity get ill and are administered antibiotics ,” says Jordan. “Aside from the whole cruelty aspect of this, in terms of our health this is not a good thing at all.”

According to the Soil Association, intensively reared pigs and poultry account for 85-95 per cent of UK farm antibiotic use.

This is creating an ‘army of deadly superbugs’ such as E.coli, which is resistant to critically important drugs and can cause meningitis, blood poisoning and severe urinary tract infections.

Passing from animals to people via the meat we eat, it has been found in meat sold in the seven major UK supermarkets and is predicted to kill one in every 10 people by 2050.

Free-range and organic meat, especially, has much lower level usage of antibiotics. Meanwhile, a 2015 study by Newcastle University found that organic meat had around 50% more omega 3-fatty acids – which is good for our joints, brain and heart – and that it is also lower in the more unhealthy saturated fats.

Free-range chicken at Castlemead Poultry: “I’d rather see birds running around in a free-range environment, allowing them to forage and eat bugs and seeds in line with their natural behaviours,” says farmer Stuart Perkins.

 

FREE-RANGE AND ORGANIC CHICKEN: THE TRUE COST

De-boned and skinless breasts, the nation’s favourite cut, bear little resemblance to the animals they come from, which makes it easier for us to ignore the realities of modern day farming.

However, following the recent supermarket chicken safety scandal uncovered by the Guardian and ITV newsand headlines about US-style chlorinated-chickens potentially heading to the UK after Brexit, consumers are becoming more aware of what’s going on behind the sanitised plastic packets of ready-to-cook meat.

Sales of free-range and organic chicken are slowly on the rise. However, it still only accounts for around five per cent of all chickens sold.

The biggest barrier for consumers is that higher-welfare chicken is around three times more expensive than the cheapest chickens. A slower-growing free-range chicken on Farmdrop starts from £10.75 and the equivalent organic chicken costs £12.75.

At the industrial end of the spectrum, a whole chicken on the supermarket shelves costs as little as £3.18, in a sandwich it’s just £1.70 and it can be found in a bucket with some chips for £2 on pretty much any high-street.

The truth is the only way to ensure better welfare and nutrition is to opt for slower-growing free-range or organic chicken.

Commercial farms, including the majority of free-range bought in the supermarkets (typically slaughtered at 56 days), generally rear the fast-growing Ross bird.

“The whole evolution of the Ross bird is basically down to people wanting breast meat,” says Nick Ball, founder of free-range Fosse Meadows chicken farm in Leicester.

“It has very small legs because nobody really wants to buy them and enormous breasts. The downside is this means it can’t walk very well.”

In an industrial system the aim is to get poultry to the supermarket shelves as quickly as possible. But slower-growing free-range farms such as Castlemead and Fosse Meadows sell to butchers shops and farmers markets, where quality is what counts.

Fosse Meadows chickens grow to 81-days: “Chickens go further and get more curious as they get older, so this essentially gives them more opportunity to roam,” says Nick Ball.

“They’re two completely different production systems,” says Stuart Perkins, who runs free-range chicken farm Castlemead Poultry in Somerset.

“The number one difference is welfare – I’d rather see birds running around in a free-range environment, allowing them to forage and eat bugs and seeds in line with their natural behaviours.”

These farms tend to opt for slower-growing breeds, from Hubbard. Their birds are fed on cereals that are grown on or nearby the farms, with a lower content of protein in their feed, so they grow at a much more natural pace. Castlemead chickens reach maturity around 70 or 80 days.

“The older a bird is, the more flavour. It’s a much firmer meat and there’s more fat on the bird, so the eating quality is much better,” says Perkins.

Ball makes a point of growing his birds to 81 days, in line with the highest organic slaughter ages.

“Chickens go further and get more curious as they get older, so this essentially gives them more opportunity to roam,” he says. “It also gives you a maturer flavour.”

Rosie Birkett’s marinated chicken recipe.

FROM FARM TO PLATE

Thanks to being given space to roam – as opposed to the equivalent of a space the size of an A4 piece of paper in a shed to live on – the muscles on free-range and organic birds have been worked and developed, so they benefit from a slower cook to make them more tender.

“When a bird is slow grown you can taste it,” says Rosie Birkett, chef and author of A Lot on Her Plate. “There is so much flavour. When roasting a chicken it fills the house with the most incredible scent.”

Although breast is the most popular part of the chicken for majority of consumers, Birkett finds it one of the least interesting cuts in terms of flavour.

She says: “Thighs are one of my favourite parts, they have a bit more fat and are on the bone so plenty of flavour.

“At this time of year I like to marinade thigh with citrus zest and juice, garlic, shallots, woody herbs, a little honey and olive oil. Slow-cook them along with the wings and squeeze over some caramelised orange. It pairs really well with bitter leaves like chicory or radicchio.”

Using the carcass to make stock also means you get full value from your bird. Simply slowly poach it with half a carrot, onion, leek and bay for the most delicious stock to use as a base for soups, risottos and pasta.

This article appeared originally on BICBIM, London’s ethical food and fashion guide, covering the eco-friendly and ethical brands that produce top-quality food, fashion and experiences. 

Farming

Why fewer, bigger slaughterhouses is bad news for us all

16th November 2017

‘Sustainably sourced’ might be an everyday phrase, yet what happens between the field and the kitchen? Megan Perry of the Sustainable Food Trust investigates how the demise of the local slaughterhouse is irrevocably changing the landscape of our food production.

why the demise of the local slaughterhouse is bad news for us all

Native breed Red Ruby cattle at Pipers Farm in Cullompton.

The moral responsibility of a livestock farmer or slaughterman to the animals they raise and kill cannot be understated. From the beginning, you must embrace the idea of the end, and that end is not a responsibility that can be passed on to someone else.

These sentiments were upheld during the Sacred Life, Sacred Death session at the Sustainable Food Trust’s Harmony in Food and Farming conference this year. Halal butcher and slaughterman Muhsen Hassanin, and livestock farmers Ruth Tudor of Trealy Farm, Lutfi Radwan of Willowbrook Farm and Rosamund Young of Kites Nest Farm, all spoke from a place of compassion and personal experience about this responsibility and their role as farmers and slaughtermen.

Separation from nature

Dealing so closely with life and death makes the realms of spirituality, morality and nature immediately tangible. As Muslims, both Muhsen and Lutfi spoke of the religious imperatives that govern their approach to farming – both produce ‘halal’ meat. According to Muhsen, human beings were given the responsibility by God to walk the earth gently. He comments that, “You have to be in a state of compassion wherever you go.”

Livestock farmers confront death head on and as a visible and integral part of life. However, we, as consumers, mostly forget the reality of where our food comes from, creating a kind of dissociation from death and ultimately from nature and its natural processes.

This dissociation goes hand in hand with the industrialisation of food production and the proliferation of cheap meat. And in turn, the loss of small abattoirs and the decline of traditional family farms.

Just 10 companies now dominate

In 1985 there were 1,000 abattoirs in the UK. By 2006 this number had fallen drastically to 285. As small abattoirs closed, bigger businesses expanded, and in 2006, the 10 largest companies slaughtered 57% of the cattle, 53% of the sheep and 75% of the pigs in the UK.

There has been a similar trend in the number of butcher shops, with 21,000 shops in 1985 falling to only 6,000 today. Traditionally, many smaller abattoirs were managed alongside butcher shops and supplied the shop directly, often run jointly as a family business.

demise of small slaughterhouse is bad news for is all

Stuart Perkins at his farm Castlemead Poultry in Somerset. With no local poultry abattoirs, Stuart spotted a gap and diversified by setting up his own on site. Not only does he have transparency over the process, but his farm retains all the value too.

The intensification and industrialisation of livestock slaughter has arguably created an alienation in the practice of killing that damages a deeper connection to nature and farming systems by decontextualising the role of slaughter from the wider system. Small-scale abattoirs are more deeply rooted in the community which allows the person doing the slaughtering to be directly connected with all parts of the food chain – from the farm where the animal was reared, to the shop where the meat is sold. This provides them with a wider perspective on their personal role in the process of food production and their place in the community.

This localisation and connection to the wider community and the food chain is lacking in large abattoirs. As with many industrialised workplaces, there may also be issues of low pay, workers rights, racism or bullying. This generates a stressful atmosphere, for both humans and animals.

Why the loss of small abattoirs is bad news for everyone

The decline of small abattoirs is an indicator of a more general shift being seen across rural Britain. Small-scale, traditional livelihoods are rapidly being lost in the face of a globalised food sector geared towards cutting costs and maximising profit. Soaring house and land prices, a lack of regulation of who can buy agricultural land and failure to prioritise affordable homes for rural people has created an almost insidious fragmentation of communities. Many villages have become commuter towns or picturesque retreats for the wealthy. And with the loss of rural Britain’s indigenous people, comes the loss of invaluable skills, knowledge and a cultural heritage stretching back hundreds of years.

demise of the small slaughterhouse

Andy Fernhill and his son at his holistic eco-farm on top of the Mendip Hills, an area which “represents thousands of years of human activity”.

If we do not reverse this decline, we are jeopardising our future food security and perpetuating a system which treats animal farming as a factory. If livestock farms and abattoirs are no longer rooted in their communities, the gulf between producer and consumer becomes wider. We no longer see ourselves as part of the food system, rooted in the natural world, and we turn away from things that are difficult to look at.

We forget our place at our peril

During his talk, Lutfi quoted from The Trial of the Animals, a book written in Baghdad in the 7thcentury, but profoundly prophetic. It told the story of how the animals called in a judge to hear their testimonies of abuse. The judge found in favour of the animals and in summing up, he said to the humans:

“Should you ere, animals will begin to disappear one by one forever from the face of the earth, and the air in your settlements and fortresses will become dangerous to breathe, the seasons will be reversed and your climates turned on end. The animals that you eat will bring sickness and death upon you and you will no longer rule the earth. This can be reversed, but humans have to realize the extent of their cruelty.”

Rearing animals, killing and eating them is something which gives us power, but it does not give us dominion. We are part of nature, a complex system of perpetual life, and forget this at our peril. Death too, is part of nature, and in ignoring or avoiding it we deny the reality of the world and perhaps even our own mortality. If we abuse animals then the communities of future generations won’t be able to rear them, nor consumers eat them, because eventually, we’ll be repulsed by the reality of factory farming.

Megan Perry writes on food and farming issues and is Policy and Communications Officer at the Sustainable Food Trust. The Sustainable Food Trust is a registered charity founded by Patrick Holden in response to the worsening human and environmental crises  associated with the vast majority of today’s food and farming systems. Megan lives on a small farm in Somerset where her family rears Black Welsh Mountain sheep.

A version of this article was originally published on the Sustainable Food Trust website in September 2017.

Farming

Why is the small British family farm quietly disappearing?

15th November 2017

Could the small, family farm all but die out in the next 30 years? Provided things stay as they are, that may be the direction we’re heading in.

The small British family farm - why are they disappearing?

West Country native breed Wessex Saddleback crossed with a Welsh Boar pigs at Pipers Farm in Devon.

 

The small UK family farm has been on the decline post-WWII, with the number of holdings of 20 hectares or less vanishing from 158,000 in 1950 to 38,500 in 2015. While these farms may be tiny on a commercial scale, the trend follows through to those of 40, 50, and 60 hectares too. According to a Defra report released last year, farms of these sizes have more than halved in number in the past 60 years.

Where have our small farms gone?

A few months ago, The Campaign to Protect Rural England reported on this issue. One of their biggest worries? Tumbleweed. The government’s kept shtum about it, and the NFU have abstained from addressing the matter (their press office also failed to respond to my calls). For some reason, the powers that be aren’t willing to face up to ­– or even comment on ­– the problem. Pippa Woods (CBE), founder of the Family Farms Association, bluntly suggests why. ‘The government knows food is cheaper from the bigger farms,’ she tells me. ‘So why should they bother with the smaller ones?’

Without any official comment, we can at least deduce possible answers from the facts. For one thing, could it be these farms are simply getting bigger, outgrowing their ‘small’ status? Not quite. Defra’s report shows that total hectarage is regressing in every category except the largest ­– collectively, farms of 200 hectares and more have seen an increase in size of almost 11% in the past 10 years.

Besides, given the current capital required for new green space (which between 2004 and 2015 has increased from £3,000 to £8,000 per acre), the spend often outweighs the production value it can net you. ‘It seems very difficult for people to buy up more land,’ says Abby Allen, marketing director at Pipers Farm. ‘I think Pipers is about five times the value of what it was 30 years ago.’

Diversifying the family farm

Why is the small British family farm disappearing?

Pipers Farm founders Peter and Henri Greig: ‘We started Pipers Farm over 20 years ago, with the goal to produce healthy meat that we, as a family, could enjoy eating with complete confidence.’

Pipers is, ostensibly, a 20-hectare, family-run meat farm in Devon. But they also work shoulder-to-shoulder with a community of 25 family farms, helping them diversify and grow into a sustainable business. ‘All are small scale,’ says Abby. ‘200 acres [80 hectares] would be the largest.’

Small farms such as these are often written off as inefficient or low-output. But a study carried out by the Prince’s Countryside Fund last year points out top-performing small family farms are just as efficient as many of the country’s much larger ones. Especially when it comes to producing higher value food – grass-fed, hand-reared, free range, self-sustaining, and all. ‘Lots of farmers have found they’ve had no choice to diversify,’ says Abby. ‘We’ve got guys who will grow veg alongside pigs, and the pigs will eat the roots and spread the manure to grow more veg.’

Big farms, getting bigger

British small family farm disappearing

An example of intensive arable agriculture.

There’s also the case of large scale farms often being too efficient, in that they produce surplus, which can be sold cheaply. These fluctuating profits don’t cause so much of a dent in the coffers of large industrial farms, but for the smaller ones, it can price them out and, in worse cases, shut them down completely.

Perhaps this is one reason why the number of US-style mega farms has increased in the UK by 26% in the past six years. Cheap food culture is still a force to be reckoned with, and corporate-minded farmers don’t want to miss out. When looking at the amount of disposable income each household spends on food for example, the UK comes third last in the world. A statistic particularly notable when on average UK residents are the biggest spenders in Europe.

This just goes to show – the noise of supermarket price cuts and promotional discounts drown out the family farm and the defining aspects of their produce. And is something smaller family-run farms are likely to find even more of a challenge in the decades to come. Provided the next generations will want to stick around, that is. ‘My daughter is working for me at the moment,’ says Rowie Meers of Purton House Organics, a 70-hectare farm near Swindon. ‘It would be great if she kept up the interest, but it’s not an easy life. Everything’s at such a huge scale these days – while people are wanting organic and home grown produce, you are really fighting against the tide of people wanting cheap food.’

Success in alternative routes to market

British small family farm

Purton House Organics founder Rowie Meers with her free ranging hens.

But as Rowie says, there is still hope for family-run farms who refuse to pander to the demands of the mass market. Purton House, like many of its ilk, finds there’s sufficient desire in high quality produce for the farm so sustain itself with its farm shop, box scheme, and the support of Farmdrop. ‘It’s a good route for small family farms to go down for the future,’ she says. ‘Without Farmdrop, my business would be really struggling.’

This interest in quality food, fortunately, often carries through to the work required of farmers as well. ‘Though it’s not the same as every other part of the world, here we’re seeing a lot of young blood come back into farming,’ says Abby. ‘People in their thirties, who’re really respecting where their food is coming from, and want to put something back in. When farming’s about nurturing the soil, and grass-fed animals, it attracts a lot more people. But as a wider industry, farming is certainly on the decline.’

Out of necessity, comes invention

It could be said that a world not fit for small farms to flourish means less access to generally better quality produce. But even ignoring that, should we be sitting by while their demise quietly unfolds? Doing so would mean less potential for businesses to shape the future of our food for the better – like what the world’s first no-kill caviar farm KC Caviar in Leeds or London’s first subterranean farm Growing Underground are doing.

The decline of the small family farm would mean fewer farms who are ready to champion the war on waste. It would mean a significant disadvantage to rural communities, whether it’s farmers sitting in on parish meetings, or being a major force in conserving the local environment. Ultimately, supporting these businesses is supporting the backlash to destructive, profit-driven industrial farming. So let’s make it happen.

Find out more on Rowie’s story and discover how you are a part of securing Britain’s sustainable farming future.

Farming

The bees knees: how exploring terroir can turn you into a honey fiend

10th November 2017

Not a honey fan? Perhaps you just haven’t found your flavour yet. From the rich and complex clover and blackberry of meadow honey to soothing eucalyptus notes in ivy honey, meet the beekeepers whose honeys are an elegant reflection of their environment and why they’re the best expression of local flavour you can get.

Emily Abbott of Hive & Keeper with her honey bees

Emily Abbot of Hive & Keeper with her hives in Wandsworth, London.

Terroir ­– that lovely French word used to describe how the environment influences a food or drink’s flavour – is commonly associated wine. But when traceability and transparency is such a big part of food these days, are we obliged to liberally apply the term to cheese, lamb, apples, et al?

Certainly that could be a point to make with honey – a food wrongly construed as a one-size-fits-all kind of deal. A case in point: Dr Ivor Davis, former president of the British Beekeeping Association, admits he originally wasn’t a fan of honey at all. ‘Off the supermarket shelf, it tastes sweet,’ says Ivor. ‘And that’s about it. But when I came across artisan honey – something which has not been overheated, where the flavours have been preserved, it really is an interesting thing.’

No flower is a challenge for the honey bee

You’re no challenge for me, buddy.

It wasn’t until Ivor was introduced to these multifarious flavours and textures that he became hooked. After collecting honeys from different parts of the UK, the next logical step was beekeeping, which Ivor took up some 30 years ago. Now, he notes why the fruits of his – and his bees ­– efforts in Somerset keep bringing people back. ‘Where I am in Bristol, I’m surrounded by fields of cattle, where not much grain is grown. So my honey is a lot of clover and a lot of blackberry. It’s considered a rich flavour, and quite complex.’

These influences take place anywhere and everywhere up and down the country – from the South East, where bees visiting lime trees produce a pale green and aromatic honey with an almost lemony flavour, all the way up to the Scottish moors, where colonies make a strong and acerbic honey from the heather abundant there. ‘Horse chestnut makes a really dark honey,’ says beekeeper and founder of Hive & Keeper Emily Abbot. ‘There’s ivy honey, which is still [at the time of writing] just out. It’s the last thing the bees can get before they hunker down for winter. That produces a medicinal eucalyptus-y honey that feels like it’s doing you good.’

In fact, no flower is a challenge to the honey bee – when one learns how to get nectar out of a particular plant, it’ll then relate that information on to its colleagues. ‘Pure oilseed rape honeys, for instance, come from that plant only,’ says Ivor. ‘They tend to be creamy in colour and quite a hard honey. Borage is another one which people do as a pure honey, because the flower produces lots of nectar. It’s a very clear honey with a delicate flavour.’

Country honey vs. city honey

Hilltop Honey source raw honey from their own hives and over 38 British beekeepers as well as honeys from around the world.

While these so-called pure honeys Ivor talks about are more common in the countryside, you’ll find those made in urban environments such as London can have hybridised and unpredictable – but no less attractive – profiles. When she started beekeeping, Emily’s garden hives were a few feet apart, yet both were producing honeys contrasting from each other in appearance, viscosity, and flavour. ‘Each time you take honey from a hive,’ she says, ‘you see it change to reflect what flowers are available, the bees’ needs, and the time of year.’

Pure or not, each honey becomes a snapshot of its environment. Dale Gibson, of Bermondsey Street Bees, tells me how colonies can stumble across a vast array of flora within a 3-mile radius in the capital. ‘Three miles is the furthest a bee can fly to obtain food and still have energy on returning from her foraging trip,’ he says. ‘London honey has a multitude of flavour points from the diverse forage offered by parks, trees, municipal plantings and private gardens.’

Beyond British honey

Hilltop Honey hives in Poland

Raw organic honey being produced in Poland for Hilltop Honey.

So cities can produce a honey with highly complex flavours. But these distinctions happen not just from county to county, but from country to country, too. Josh Owen of Hilltop Honey, who sell several honeys from around the world, expounds on raw Acacia from Romania. ‘It’s an incredibly light and mild honey by taste,’ says Josh. ‘And it stays runny for a very long time, which is different to any honey you can get in the UK. At the other end of the spectrum, thyme honey from Greece is powerful in flavour ­– something also you [typically] cannot get in the UK.’

Even so, Britain can still hold its own: From the light, sweet, and floral flavours of clover honey, to the pungency and bitterness of heather. And with the news that the UK will back a total ban on bee-harming pesticides, the future is looking brighter for bees. Honey is a food which is ripe for exploration. ‘I used to collect honey from various parts of the country, and take them to show people the variety of flavour you can get,’ says Ivor. ‘You can almost revel in it.’

View the full range of honeys available at farmdrop.com.