Friday, 10 June 2011

Team Farming

I've been off on my travels again this week, a non stop tour of Wales, Cheshire, Oxfordshire and Reading. It was a great opportunity to catch up with old and new friends who all showed me great hospitality.
First stop was near Whitchurch with Linda and Brian who in the dim and distant past shared damp and grotty lodgings with me when at college. Linda was an AMBA and Brian completed a HND agriculture. After spending 10 years tractor driving they set up their own business with a digger and a little tractor building patios, horse rings, fencng and maintaining suermarket grounds. When their 3 girls were young Linda started as a child minder and now has a constant stream of children clients. Brian has a simple business plan, not going over the VAT limit (making 20% cheaper the other contractors), doing most of the work himself, not employing anybody and working very hard. Since he started he has never been short of work and together they have renovated an old farmhouse and have a smallholding of 6 acres where the children have ponies, ducks and chickens, they fatten a few pigs, sell some silage and have an enviable veg garden.
After meeting with fellow Nuffield Scholar Michael and buying a map we travelled to Pwllheli to visit Rhys, a grazing evangalist who runs a herd of 1000 cows. It just so happens that Rhys is also writing a nuffield report on Equity partnerships. Rhys farms in a share farm arrangement that is popular in New Zealand where the land owner takes a share of the risk and the milker has access to capital and borrowing. The key to Rhys system seemed to be the trust between the partners in the share arrangement and he seems to have found the right opportunity to use his attention to detail to produce some pretty impressive results. Michael is writing a grazing blog all about grass so if you are really interested I am sure he will write at length about our visit.
Next stop was Snowdon where Arwyn is farm manager for the National Trust on a farm that has much history and has a wild untamed beauty. Here farming is not just about the results but also about the local community and the environment, relying on subsidy payment to stay in profit, but providing employment to a team of skilled shepherds and farm workers. Arwyn heads and guides this team maintaining a landscape that people care passionately about.
After a brief stop at Chestnut meats where Marnie the goat lady fed us goat sausages, I visited another old college friend Mr Nurse. David is a first generation farmer who always wanted to milk cows, when his precollege boss wanted to retire he was offered the opportunity to become the tenant of 125 acres of prime Cheshire farmland. Buying the landlords 100 cows and equipment and taking on huge borrowings David has worked hard to pay back much of what he owed and has made a profit even in years when the milk price has poor. Again the system is nothing complicated, but by sheer determination and commitment it has worked. David works on his own, with occasonal partime help and a relief milker once a month. If you have milked cows or worked on a farm you will understand the strength of character this requires and I admire all David has achieved. David's lucky break has been belonging to a local co-op of dairy farmers that his landlord had been a founder member. This co-op uses its buying power to negiotiate feed and fertilizer prices, has regular bench marking amongst the members, farm walks and visits and even gives access to small loans for capital improvements.
After a brief stop in Oxfordshire to cuddle my beautiful new Nephew, I meet with George Dunn of the Tenants Farmers Association (TFA). The TFA was formed in 1981 by a group of farmers who felt that their interests were not being forcefully represented by existing bodies. The TFA is the only organisation dedicated to the agricultural tenanted sector and is the authentic voice on behalf of tenant farmers. The TFA lobbies at all levels of Government and gives professional advice to its members.
So then back to Devon where Nevil and the children have been getting ready for Open Farm Sunday. This mainly envolves Nevil and Elsa tidying up and the rest getting very excited about the opportunity to show people 'Their Farm'.
So a tour of different farms with one thing in common team work. The husband wife team, the business partnership, the mentoring support of a co-op, the help of a support organisation or the crazy family team I love so much at home. Maybe this could be one of the keys to a successful farm and business. I have a feeling that at last I am finding something to put in my Nuffield report!

Saturday, 4 June 2011

French Shopping

We have this myth amongst the farmers market traders that everyone in France buys at the market, French women all know how to cook and hygiene rules are non existent in France. I visited yet another market in Angers and saw piles of the local white asparagus that the market gardens around the city are famous for. Late wednesday morning there seemed to be plenty of people about and they seemed to be buying. Plenty of poultry and rabbit, vegetables, fish including live eels, local sables (biscuits) and fruit. Standards were a lot higher in this market with the square having electric sockets so the meat stalls all had impressive chillers. Didn't see any lamb or beef but there was plenty of pork and preserved pork products like rilletes and salamis. I even tried Kangaroo salami, but I'm pretty sure that wasn't local meat!

Having lunch with a group of lecturers from the college I quizzed them about where they shopped and as in the UK most bought from the supermarket, although they (like in the states) thought the idea of online shopping for fresh produce crazy. Some bought a weekly veg box and most were quite embarresed about their shopping habits. It seemed like it wasn't thought to be French not to buy at market, but their lifestyle (not the cost) were making it more convenient to do a one stop supermarket shop.Some of the markets had recognised this and there are now farmers markets on a sunday and more night markets that start as people are leaving work. On warm summer evenings I can see the appeal of the evening market and it might just be away of making them more accesiable, although a cold wet November night in Devon may not increase trade.
And the myth about Fench women cooking, why do you think they have Charcuterie shops and serve Confit and cassoulet.

*special point for a cheese maker from Devon, there was no parking charges so I had some money left to spend!

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

La Volaille preferee des Francais

It's always good to see men digging holes and this time it was young farmer Oliver and his cousin that was trying to find the leaking irrigation pipe. As in the UK, France is very dry and the Sarthe region was already irrigating. Oliver is 21 and after completeing an Agricultural diploma has just started to farm with his parents (Marie-Armelle et Pascal LELIÈVRE) and has a 10% share in the family farming company. When another cousin and uncle had land for sale he managed to buy 20ha and rent an additional 30ha and this he has bought into the busines which now totals 180ha of wheat, rape, maize and sunflowers as well as a small herd of Limousin cattle to graze the river pastures and two houses of free range chickens (4000 per house 3 batches per year). Oliver hadn't taken up the government young farmer assistance to buy the land and grant scheme as he is hoping in the future that more land and maybe a house would be available nearby. Land in this area, like a warm Cambridgeshire, is around 3000 - 4000 euros per ha, much is irrigated but the farm owned very little equipment, relying on the machinery ring for everything except the tractor. Grain was all marketed through the co-op. The farm also had a Gite and a small B&B business. The same as most businesses I have visited, Pascal plans to get larger and specialise, Oliver is earning equity in the farm business while doing other work for a neighbouring relative to have an income to live on.

The chickens really interested me and I was expecting something exceptional as they have a protected geographical indication (PGI) . This is a EU legal definition of where they are produced and how, similar to the status Cornish pasties has recently gained. Label Rouge was developed for poultry through a collective, regional approach involving a region’s entire production sector, from poultry farmers to processing plants. The production of Label Rouge traditional poultry is thus deeply rooted in the French regions.To emphasize the importance of regional farming traditions, most Label Rouge poultry is identified by a PGI (Protected Geographic Indication), protected by a European patent. Currently there are 31 PGIs for poultry. They provide the “local touch” with a reassurance of guaranteed origin for those who eat the products and the promise of a special flavor that is very typical of each terroir.
The producers of “Loué” began to rear poultry under “Label Rouge” conditions in 1958. Actually, about 1000 farmers produce 28 millions of poultry and 160 millions of eggs per year and there are 150 different references of products from the whole carcasses to process products. It's not just chickens, but eggs, turkeys, ducks, geese and Guinea fowl all produced in an area near Le mans, spending some time free range, slow grown and fed local feed that has 80% cereal in. All the poultry are tagged for traceability, with a small metal tag applied at 4 weeks on the top of the wing. The chicken breeds can be all types including the funny naked neck birds and a bird similar to a hubbard. At Le Fresne they were grown to 90 days and free range for 7 or 8 weeks. they were in groups of 4,000 in fixed housing and had extensive ranges with good pasture cover. So pretty much exactly the same as the free range birds in the UK.
Asking a few french folk I met about Loué chicken it seemed a recognised brand that stood for quality and taste. I tasted a few as well and for a free range chicken they were pretty good, not anything exceptional with pretty much uniform taste on breast and legs (we strive for a differance between the white and dark meat). But the power of marketing is impressive with the Loué sign on farm gates and a great pride amoung the farmers that the regional chicken was the best, even driving down the motorway a sign anounces that you are entering the land of chicken and egg farmers.
In the UK, especially in the South West there has been a great revival of food provenance and interest in all things local. If We farmers could capture some of that French pride in what we are producing and market together maybe in future travelling along the M5 near Cullompton you would be greeted by a giant chicken or signs announcing that Devonshire really does produce the best poultry in the world.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

A grande Ecole

Back in the old days at Harper Adams we sometimes had French students join our course for a term or two to improve their English and learn how brillant our farming was. One of the first students to come was Maryse, a brave and intrepid adventurer at a time when relaionships between French and English farmers was not good. If I remember rightly she mostly felt cold, but her English improved and we had fun showing her England, despairing of proving English food was better when on a Harper canteen diet we had to go home to my Mum's cooking. A few years later Nevil and I attended her wedding, a traditional 3 day french celebration where the only other English was her former tutor, Richard Waldron. Fast forward to 1999 Richard found us out on our own farm and since then we have regularly had french students for their 'stage' or work experience. Richard is a bit of a legend at ESA Angers who sadly died a few years back, but has left his legacy at the college where all students are English word perfect to 'Puff the Magic Dragon'
It was great to finally visit the college and meet with Richard's replacement Claire and see where the students study. In true student fashion (!) I have cut and pasted all about the college in English. I'm actually feeling sightly guilty as our current student's exam this week wil be presenting 10 minutes in English about her farming experience in Devon...... now there's a Nuffield idea for the October conferance.

With its 2,630 students, the Groupe ESA is the largest institute of higher education for life sciences in France. It offers a wide range of courses in 10 major sectors of activity : farming, food, landscape management, environment, horticulture, viticulture, retailing, trade, agribusiness management and town & country planning.

Within the Groupe ESA, there are four institutions and four research laboratories :

A ‘grande école’, ESA

which awards undergraduate and post graduate degrees (including PhDs) and the typically French diploma ‘ingenieur’, which is traditionally a five year sandwich course punctuated with five work placements in industry, including a MSc type thesis.

A school of executive management, called ’Agricadre’

which offers a 2 year course in management and trade to students who have already done a minimum of two years university education ; it also offers the European Engineer Degree course in collaboration with Christeljike Agrarische Hogesschool, Dronten in the Netherlands.

An adult education centre for professional training offering

apprenticeship training, adult continuing education , and even distance learning (or correspondence courses).

A century old school :

ESA was founded in 1898 by Jesuits and representatives of the agricultural world. The school has been instrumental in the development of agriculture in northern and western France, the first region in Europe in the farming and the food industry sectors. Since the Jesuits left in 1970, the school has become a non-profitmaking organization managed by alumni, but closely controlled by the state.

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Chambres D'Hotes

I'm starting to like the French and France. It helps the weather is good, I'm staying in the Sarthe valley which is about 2 hours west of Rennes an hour north of Angers and fairly near Le Mans. Nobody else seem to be here on holiday and I have the pleasure of empty roads and cafes and although they don't like to admit it the tourism generally is quiet and like the UK a general slow down of the economy seems to having an effect. It is an area of 'cites de caracteres' (pretty villages), slow moving rivers and streams and huge abbeys.
I am starting to admire the French National pride in all things french and how they are convinced that their food is better. All the villages are clean and tidy with immaculate carparks (all free) with well signposted facilities, the southwest tourist industry could certainly learn a lot.

And french B&B I love it, remembering my brief career (5 years) running a B&B on the top of Exmoor how I love the idea of:
  • nobody expects a cooked breakfast, bread and jam is easy and when it goes stale just toast it or dip in your coffee.
  • nobody expects good coffee, cafe or lump it.
  • evening meals can be 5 courses by serving everything seperately.
  • saving on washing up, one knife and fork for every course is fine.
  • plenty of wine with the said meal and nobody will remember what you served.
  • Sunshine means happy guests after a week of wet cold days on Exmoor even the most hardy guest can feel disapointed.
  • more sunshine especially for drying that washing, try keeping sheets on the line on Exmoor let alone getting them dry.
Farming in France, might be tempted!

Sunday, 1 May 2011

45 minutes to boil an egg.....

It seemed like a good idea to agree to a 45 minutes talk about ducks and eggs to help make our stall at Exeter Food festival go well. After spending the week before making our new Duck confit and geting greatly stressed I find myself on Royal wedding day completely unprepared delivering a talk on keeping chickens when I had agreed to talk about eggs and duck eggs. Luckily it clashed with the balcony kiss and only the unromantic republicans of Exeter were there to hear me, not so on saturday when I had to abandon my stall with Elsa (age 12) in sole charge as Nevil got stuck in the Exeter football match traffic. This time the tent was full of eager chicken fanciers, but in true Nuffield fashion I managed to convince them that chicken keeping was easy and fun. I also managed a recipe as it was a food festival, effortlessly whipping up a lemon curd using duck eggs. It seemed to go down well and it was certainly memorable with first Dora turning up and then Elsa wandering through to tell me her Dad had finally arrived. Shouting to be heard over a circling helicopter (it was a Plymouth V Exeter match and bloodshed was expected ) I carefully answered questions and avoided anything too contraversial (like badgers and foxes).
So was the festival worth it? I hope so because it was a huge amount of work. The stand cost £325 and we most definately did not take enough to work on my 10% margin. But it was a great showcase for our New Confit product that had loads of postive response and a celebrity endorsement from Mark Hix. The Festival was fun, well managed and well advertised. It seemed to be more of a great day out with food than a food buying event. Being old and cynical should I expect anything better? Probably not, but I am still sure there should be a way to do both like I saw in the Hudson valley.
But is it farming? Probably not, but in a mad way I really enjoyed it, back meeting my foodie groupies and as well as the fellow stall holders that though they love to brag, do try and support each other with lots of bartering and good will.
And as for the Nuffield talk in October, it should be a piece a cake, 15 minutes and no recipe... easy!

Sunday, 27 March 2011

This Little Piggy....

At the age of three I made the decision to be a pig farmer. My family will tell you that when I start something it is hard to distract me and after briefly toying with the idea of an acting career, I spent the next 16 years plotting how. Living in the country next door to a small pig farm with pigs in pigsties and spending many hours helping out started my farming passion. We even had our own pig each year, that come slaughter day, my Mum worked her way through Jane Grigson's Charcuterie & French Pork Cookery making fantastic joints, sausages, brawn, bacon and Chitterlings.
My first proper farm job on my precollege year was a mixed arable, cattle and pig farm. But this was the time when pig farming was on it's knees and the pig enterprise was being wound down and eventually the housing was converted into livery stables. So I did some pig rearing but was definately distracted by big shiney tractors and combines. My desire to be a fulltime pig farmer finally disapeared during my first tour of Harper Adams Pig finishing house. High welfare, I am sure but to me keeping intelligent animals with no straw in semi darkness was not how I imagined my pig farm would be. This was in the old days and I can still remember being told by a very senior member of staff that outdoor pigs would never take off as who would want to work with them in the cold and wet.
Quite a few years later when we moved to Higher Fingle and the children decided their favourite food was sausages, we took the family allowance and bought a couple of in pig gilts and a trailer (that's the advantage of lots of children, lots of child benefit!) After the piglets were fattened, we sold some of the pork locally and that paid for all those sausages. After a few years of not losing money, a life style farmer (Devon is full of them) started rearing pigs nearby, having more time and energy to market the pork, quickly undercut our amateur enterprise and made it no longer cost effective to continue. Now they have retired there is now a gap in the market that we could look at filling. But this time the cost of food has risen by 40% and it now becomes a more risky enterprise.
Thinking about the great CSA's I saw in the states and not just how important the help with cashflow was, but the commitment by the customer to support the farmer and buy, I am hoping to try an experimental pig CSA. It works like this;
  • you buy a share in the pig, I am thinking about a 1/4 share being £75
  • this pays for the piglet, the food, the straw and any other whim a pampered free range pig will need
  • it also pays for the transport, butchery, including some sausages and packing ready for the freezer.
  • Nevil will promise to ensure that the pigs are kept in piggy luxury.
  • If you like you can come and scratch the pigs back, give it a name and help feed it.
  • then after 6 to 8 months you collect around 12-15kg of fantastic pork.
  • You can officially describe yourself as a pig farmer (ok only 1/4 of a pig but all new entrants start somewhere).
What I would like to be able to do is prove that a CSA can work for an ordinary farmer as a way of spreading the risk and helping with working capital. I have an idea that if landlords and banks can accept it as a way of financing part of a farm set up it could be possible that new entrants could be supported with everyone winning. It may only be a few pigs this time, but why not a small flock of sheep or laying hens. It could make the difference to making a small starter farm viable or not.
So anyone that wants to support my study and my greedy childrens sausage habit please get in touch soon and sign up for the best deal in the farm yard!