In such a turbulent year with so many challenges, one note has chimed with all farmers; on a daily level, not much has changed at all. However, there is a general feeling that the tide is turning when it comes to the public’s attitude to food, farming and provenance.
As Lloyd Mortimore, an organic beef farmer and long-term supplier to the Riverford organic veg boxes, puts it: “The pandemic has overshadowed everything, but from a day to day working, the routine hasn’t really changed.”
Mortimore farms 500 cattle over 600 acres on Dartmoor National Park, and he says he’s felt a renewed sense of gratitude during the last year. “It’s reassured us how lucky we are, living where we do and living the lives that we do. Farming can be rough a lot of the time, but you’re working in open air, with nature. During times like this, it makes you realise that it’s not so bad.”
Helen Browning, a farmer known for her high welfare organic pork in Wiltshire, and her role as chief executive of the Soil Association, echoes this sentiment. “On the farm side, in many ways, things have continued like usual. You can’t stop feeding the cows or planting the crops,” she says.
It has been a particularly uncertain year for John Malseed from Frenchbeer Farm in Devon, whose slow-grown organic turkeys will also reach Riverford customers this year. Malseed explains that the uncertain rules and regulations over household mixing at Christmas has made it impossible to know what size of turkeys to rear. “We were hatching our birds during the first lockdown, so anyone’s guess was completely uneducated, but we just carried on,” he says.
However, like many in the pandemic, farmers have had to be agile and innovative to cope with the consequences. “With the demand for small turkeys, we’ve had to adapt with our medium range birds, we’re going to make into half turkeys, cut right down the middle,” says Malseed. “And the larger ones, the classic big family Christmas turkey of 10kg, we’re going to take off the legs and thighs and make into a turkey roll for a small gathering.”
Likewise, Browning, who also runs a pub and a hotel on the farm, says that these unfortunate circumstances have fostered an entrepreneurial spirit in the community. “You can either think this is all doom and gloom, and we all shut up shop or you can ask; what can we do? Most organic businesses are about what we can achieve if we put our minds to it.”
When her pub had to close its doors, a flurry of endeavours took its place. “We started doing local home deliveries and we fed the NHS night staff in our local Swindon hospital,” she says. “We refurbished our old pig catering vehicles and started doing takeaways from that, so actually in some ways it was a very productive time.”
Due to more community engagement, and a shift in consumer priorities, another longstanding project finally became possible. “We opened a farm shop on site, which we’ve tried to do before, but it never worked, but suddenly people wanted to buy more local and that seemed to get some traction at last,” she says.
Meanwhile on a human level, Browning says: “It was quite a big teambuilding period because everyone was thrown into this complicated and difficult world, and we all had to pull together and do things fast.”
Sustainable food has been very much on the public’s agenda of late, stemming from a wave of new-found appreciation of food and a desire to connect with its provenance. Malseed has found customers to be more and more inquisitive about how his turkeys are raised. “Our own customers now ask us two main questions; do you use plastic packaging, and do you use soya in your feed?”
The sustainability of soya production, a crop high in protein used in animal feed, has been widely called into question following investigations that have found production linked to deforestation in Brazil.
In light of this consumer desire for an even more environmentally-sound product, next year Malseed is trialling his first year of soya-free turkeys. “But there’s no guarantee that it will work because if it was easy then we would have done it already. It’s just an experiment for now,” he says.
Malseed plans to use oilseed rape as an alternative feed, which has increased sustainability credentials since it can be produced organically here in the UK. But he’s not totally convinced of its potential to nourish his birds, saying: “Soya is such a nutrient rich plant, so the alternative won’t be as protein-rich to help develop their bones and skeleton.”
Back on Dartmoor, Mortimore, who farms alongside his son Pete, stresses the importance of his animal welfare, and says: “Those of us who produce animal products, sympathetically, we do it because we care about the animals, we respect the animals and what they do for us.”
With Brexit finally happening, and coronavirus disrupting business as usual, the farming landscape still holds uncertainty for 2021. But behind the turbulence of the outside world, environmental consideration, animal welfare and human fulfilment will remain steady forces for organic meat producers.