Two types of farms that are prospering in today’s hostile agricultural conditions are ones that I will term the hands off and the hands on farms. The hands off farms are the large arable concerns of a thousand plus acres that a single worker with the right technology can cultivate and which will reap hundreds of thousands of pounds in EU subsidy alone – hands off in more than one sense. The hands on are those farms which promote an open gate policy; enterprises like Middle Farm, Firle, East Sussex.
The family who have owned Middle Farm for several generations recognised that diversification was crucial for survival. An effective way to achieve this was to invite the enemy: the urban and the semi-rusticated, onto their land and “flog ‘em summat” direct.
Encourage them to come and fill their lungs with country air, stroke your pigs and drink Jersey full-fat straight from your cow’s udder and hey, they might love it and come back for more. Stack some bales in a barn and let their children run amok, offer to press the apples from their own garden trees, lead courses for would be good lifers and deviant Waitrose partners titled “Keeping Poultry for Pleasure.”
Back up the aforementioned attractions with shops: a butchery, a bakery, a country crafts bazaar called Skies and Scarecrows and a café called Plough Monday (their names, not mine). For good measure throw in the National Collection of Cider and Perry and a farmers market on the fourth Sunday of every month.
It might all sound like a bumpkin theme park dreamt up by a creative marketing team overdoing the big sky thinking, but the whole shebang is firmly grounded in a celebration of regional diversity and a search for distinctive taste. What they have engendered here is a strong sense of loyalty towards Middle Farm and with that comes a growth in trust for good British farming in the hinterland beyond. For all I know, they may be, like many involved in today’s agricultural economy, one bank manager’s call away from oblivion, but I doubt it. I would guess that Middle Farm is doing very well, thank you.
A reasonable question is why are more farms not following this pattern on at least some level? OK, many farmers just don’t want to be entertaining as part of their jobs, they would like to be getting on with producing food and leaving the show business to someone else. Some disdain urban types and don’t wish to engage in naive debates about organic and conventional farming methods with the uninformed. By talking to their ultimate consumers these reactionary types might just learn something useful and, in turn, raise general levels of understanding.
Not all farms have such a ready supply of customers; it helps that Middle Farm lies beside the busy A27 not many miles from a city. Even the simplest roadside stall has to be manned; this requires an outlay in wages which may not be affordable for small operations in the initial stages. This is where the Farmer’s Markets come in and why we found ourselves at Middle Farm on the fourth Sunday of September.
The National Association of Farmers Markets lays down a set of rules by which a market must adhere if it wishes to be certified by that body as a Farmers Market. The intention of these rules is to help insure that the food on sale has a local character and that neighbourhood producers are the main beneficiaries. It is worth taking a look at these guidelines just to see the level of consideration which has been applied.
1. Locally produced.
A county boundary or radial distance of 30 to 100 miles should be defined by the market, preference being given to the nearest producers.
2. Principal producer.
The principal producer or a representative directly involved in the production process must attend the stall, it is central to the NAFM ethos that the customer can find out as much about the produce as they wish.
3. Primary, own produce.
All produce sold must be grown, reared, caught by the stall holder within the defined local area, having spent at least 50% of its life within the local area.
4. Secondary, own produce.
Anyone processing produce or adding value is a secondary producer. All produce must be brewed, pickled, baked, smoked or processed by the stall holder using at least one ingredient of origin (at least 10%of total product) from within the defined local area.
5. Policy and information.
Information should be available to customers at each market about the rules of the market and the production methods of the producers.
These diktats remind me of Lars Von Trier’s Dogme 95 manifesto, where the Danish director laid out some very rigid rules for filmmaking. Some examples:
Shooting must be done on location, props and sets must not be brought in (if a particular prop is necessary for the story, a location must be chosen where this prop is to be found)
The camera must be hand held.
Temporal and geographical alienation are forbidden (That is to say that the film takes place in the here and now)
Genre movies are not acceptable.
On the page these rules look cold and wilfully obtuse. When adhered to they have facilitated the development of some raw and vital cinema, films far more involving than anything Hollywood, with all those billions at its disposal, can muster.
Middle Farm’s market is not kept on such a tight rein as all that, but there is plenty of Sussex produce and the stallholders are very knowledgeable about their fare. I suspect that most of them will turn up on other days at the NAFM certified markets in nearby Lewes, Ukfield and Heathfield.
We started with some organic goat’s cheese from Nut Knowle Farm, Horam, East Sussex. We went for their Little Garlic, a boursin style soft cheese. It was creamy with just the right amount of carousing Satyr about it; it would go really well on toast.
Chilli Pepper Pete grows a wide range of peppers in poly tunnels at his Brighton base; his stall is a visually striking display of red bells and purple cones. He stocks a completist’s set of the potted up, fresh, dried and seminal forms of the chilli pepper. What really got us hot though was his range of sauces and pickles. My favourite was the home made Tasmanian Devil relish which blends his Tasmanian Habaneros with garlic, onions, coriander and citrus fruits, he flies in the face of any puritanical strictures by sweetening the blend with tropical mangoes and kiwis.
Imagine strolling through your local supermarket and encountering the following sign at the end of the wines and spirits department:
DON’T BOTHER BUYING THE CARLSBERG LAGER, NOT ONLY IS IT PISS WEAK, IT MAKES YOU FART A LOT.
You might think that this was a droll marketing ploy and depending on how you view droll marketing ploys, go and buy a case for the first time ever. I would, probably.
The smallholder manning the fruit and veg stall appeared to be pitching along these very lines. He advised us against his Cox’s Orange Pippin apples, best to wait a month he reckoned. Why not try the Egremont Russets, the Worcester Pearmain or the Laxton’s Fortune varieties. Was he trying to offload some surplus stock on us? Oh dear, Sainsburys usually make these sort of tricky decisions for us long before we arrive there. My son Fred, who, around that time, had been studying deviousness at great length, felt that this wasn’t in fact a double bluff and he was, naturally, right. We tasted. The Cox’s were indeed too sharp, just yet. The Russet’s skin felt like sandpaper on the tongue but the flesh reminded me of pear with a mildly nutty undertow, could work really well alongside the goat’s cheese. Laxton’s Fortune were my favourite: juicy, taste balanced on a knife edge between sweet and acid, a hint of aniseed The Worcesters were juicy and sweet enough for the children, the red blushing skin had a few moles but they like their apples peeled anyway. It felt good to be buying British apples, and not just because we had received a carrier bag full of mixed apples for a pound fifty; seventy-six percent of our apples are imported and that needn’t be the case.
A mention of russet, and there she was again, that exemplary auburn beauty from the supermarket checkout queue, with her moleskin notebook. The gilded hair was held back in a ponytail, which fell from behind a flat cap; she wore a wax jacket and creamy jodhpurs. When I looked down at her Wellington boots I experienced one of those juddering moments where you channel your parent’s response directly through your own reaction.
One of my Dad’s several unpaid roles while watching television is that of continuity man. He still proudly reminds me of the time that he spotted a plastic bucket in Roman Polanski’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles; the pail had been kept out of sight of the camera, sure enough, but he knew the sound gushing milk made on polypropylene and was not to be fooled.
I digress, her wellies were covered in red mud, and, as we already know, the soil around these parts is a Vienetta mixture of chalk and clay. I had heard that it is possible to buy spray on mud, rumoured to be an essential for the inner city four wheel drive fraternity but I had real doubts about its existence. It did work really well with her skin tone, though. She was a little haughty but not that vain, surely? I accepted this mud as a clue to mull over.
Let’s call her Rosemary and presume that she either comes from, or has recently been, somewhere where the soil is red. Slung from the crook of Rosemary’s arm was a willow basket; she held her notepad in the palm of that arm and wrote. This particular basket was brimming with the local produce on offer. She, like us, seemed to have swapped the supermarket’s international souk for this parochial marketplace. Perhaps she had grown weary of the exotic fare that she bought at the supermarket and wanted something a little more homely and comforting; could that hauteur mask vulnerability?
We stopped at a barbecue and wolfed pork and apple bangers and sage laced veggie burgers, washed down with cloudy apple juice. I watched Rosemary as she picked her way from stall to stall, chatting, buying and writing in her moleskin. I thought that I could make out the strummed chords of G, D and C being borne on occasional gusts of westerly wind and tangled up amongst their notes a voice:
And my father won´t slight you for your lack of kine
Silence, and then, seconds later:
And then she turnedhomeward With one star awake
and then, nothing more.
We wandered on; we could have bought locally caught fish, organically reared meat, free range eggs or homebaked cakes. We actually spent our last tenner on the pies cooked up in the kitchens of Farm 2 Kitchen from Bates Green Farm in Arlington, East Sussex and that later turned out to be money exceedingly well spent.
We returned to the car and loaded up our haul: the carrier bag full of apples, plums, potatoes, beetroot, tomatoes, pies enough to inspire a football crowd to come up with new folksongs on that theme, goat’s cheese, two types of chilli relish and flagons of both cider and perry.
Having spent up, we drove home reflecting on the fact that we had managed to use up nearly half of our weekly food budget. The fruit and vegetables had been cheaper than any supermarket, the rest, in truth, an indulgence. We were also wondering when we would now find the time to do the remainder of the bulk of our week’s food shopping. If we repeated the exercise, we would need to have a good idea about what we were going to buy in advance and try not to go with an empty stomach; empty stomachs and full pockets tend to the impulsive. The getting had been a pleasure though, not something you find yourself saying very often about the supermarket run. We were confident that the food we had bought would be healthy and flavoursome and its purchase of direct benefit to the local farming community. As Farm 2 Kitchen’s tagline puts it: “F2K – FOOD YOUR BODY WOULD CHOOSE”.
For our tea that evening, we feasted on crusty pies: Pork, Apple and Tarragon for the omnivores, Vegetable Tagine for the herbivore, alongside roasted beetroot and mashed potato; what better accompaniment for this hearty fare than some strong Sussex organic perry? For desert, we chomped on farmer’s plums.
After supper, I sat with a self-satisfied glow (cider does that for you) and fantasised about how the farmers market might appear if the NAFM commissioned Lars Von Trier to draw up its trading rules:
Only sell pork where the pigs have had pannage on wealdean acorns.
All meat must be butchered in clear view at the front of the vendor’s stall.
Vendors must subsist solely on their own produce for the week preceding the market.
No motorised transport, food must walk itself or be carried to market on foot.