From local flour to award-winning cheese – 5 artisan Suffolk producers to support in lockdown
PUBLISHED: 19:00 14 May 2020 | UPDATED: 16:15 18 May 2020
Tessa Allingham discovers how the Covid-19 pandemic has opened up ways for Suffolk producers to reach new customers
The world spins on its new Covid-19 axis, fuelled by uncertainty, but the farming cycle continues. Out on the Suffolk coast, pigs snort in the face of pandemic, concerns limited to feeding, farrowing safely, and getting the odd back-scratch. Cows released onto fresh spring grass still expect to be milked twice-daily, ewes still give birth to tail-twitching lambs, and strawberries ripen, as they always have in May and June. On the Suffolk coast, skate is being landed, Dover sole are plentiful, lobster pots are full. It’s a beautiful, bursting time of year.
When hospitality tipped over the cliff, with devastating and as yet not fully understood consequences, on Friday March 20, it left many producers teetering on the edge too. They’ve had to scramble back to relative safety, and adapt – or ‘pivot’ to use a certain candidate for 2020 ‘word of the year’.
“The ones who will be OK are those who are nimble,” says William Kendall, whose organic Maple Farm in Kelsale grows and mills wheat, produces eggs, honey, and seasonal produce for retail sale, including at his small farm shop. Covid19 halted plans to expand into a barn ten times the size. This is no time to be Luddite about sales, marketing and technology, Kendall argues. “This crisis has highlighted the gulf between [farmers] being the masters of production, but not of marketing.” The Maple Farm team are “instagramming furiously” and while that alone doesn’t make a business “it gets you thinking about how to be relevant”.
He adds: “Short term, hospitality is not coming back but people are still eating. Finding a way into people’s fridges requires ingenuity, but there are opportunities for anyone entrepreneurial.” Products must be discernibly different, he says. Amazon won’t go away, but the notion of commodity production should be questioned.
“The trends were already there, but public interest in food, health and diet will accelerate now. It’ll be pro-neighbourhood and anti-long supply chains.” Kendall is a director of Farmdrop, the online ‘ethical supermarket’ which connects customers with some 450 farmers and small-scale producers in the UK and beyond, offering delivery to certain postcodes (not East Anglia – yet). Sales have “gone through the roof” he says. You can bet your last tablespoons of flour that Kendall can see long-term possibility for the model, because his track record in spotting and supporting business talent glitters.
Clive Williamson who runs Maynard House farm-pressed juice from the family farm in Bradfield Combust, agrees. Retail sales remain strong, but the collapse of significant restaurant trade has led him to social media. “I’ve learnt a lot about Facebook recently! We’ve doubled, tripled even, our juice sales with a bit of advertising. People just keep ordering.” It’s not huge volume, and there’s not much money, but he’ll carry on. “If it grows to 2 per cent of our business I’ll be surprised, but we’ve dived in and found we can do it.”
Apples are just part of the business. Covid-19 hit as the Williamsons were readying for the strawberry season, with picking due to start early June. The intention is to pick and pack the whole crop, assuming customer demand remains strong and labour worries are overcome (therein lies a story in itself). One thing’s for sure for west Suffolk locals, however – just-picked berries will be for sale from the roadside stall by Church Farm.
On the Suffolk-Essex borders, grower Pete Thompson has sniffed the wind too. Just a few weeks ago, deliveries – “a really good monthly order” – of his Cotchel apple juice were going to the Langham hotel, London. He was keeping Chinese restaurants supplied with specialist produce, and working with leading chefs on interesting varietal trials. Then Covid19 happened, and his almost entirely foodservice-dependent business stopped.
“Working with the Chinese restaurants, we were aware of a slow-down already in February. But on March 20 business disappeared overnight.” Peter wasted little time. “One day, at the peak of panic-buying, we got some fruit and veg boxes to our staff. Then we offered them to the village and it went brilliantly, so we offered them to some Colchester postcodes, using the e-commerce site for our Reliquum spirits.” He laughs. “That was naïve! You can send out a bottle of gin here and there, but suddenly we were getting 200 orders a day.”
A March 31 Zoom meeting ended with the decision to go for it properly. Within a week a new brand, Holt Farm, and sales-focused website were live. “The old way, you’d have sat round a table, discussed, played around with ideas, gone away to think, met again, checked stuff, eventually launched. We had none of that. We just did it.” Access to Cloud accounting, video-conferencing, software for easy ordering, has been essential. “Three years ago this wouldn’t have been possible,” says Pete.
Alongside regular veg boxes, Holt Farm’s Gourmet Box includes ingredients that are “a bit more cheffy or challenging”, the likes of globe artichokes, Meyer lemons, calamansi and finger limes, and (from July) the heritage tomatoes that were being trialled for Roux and Galvin restaurants. Other East Anglian dry goods will be included soon (look out for Munchies Seeds, Scarlett & Mustard dressings, Hillfarm rapeseed oil, Hodmedod’s pulses), and delivery to certain IP postcodes is imminent.
Pete won’t look back. “We’re back to 50-60 per cent of our Chinese restaurant business, but the other foodservice trade isn’t returning any time soon. Holt Farm is part of our future.” It has kept jobs and prevented waste too, he adds. “Farming is still farming. We’re still growing things in the dirt. But the way we relate to customers will be very different going forward. People have had to shop online and they’ve realised it’s not that difficult.”
Mark Hayward whose business, Dingley Dell produces high-welfare pork near Woodbridge, is counting on this as he starts to sell his Italian-style charcuterie – salamis, coppa, lomo – online. “It’s just an envelope with sliced charcuterie through your letterbox. Simple as that. No couriers.” Fresh pork will reach home cooks via long-standing partner and catering supplier, Direct Meats, which itself has switched to retail sales.
“We went into 2020 with more projects than ever,” Mark says, “really fancy, lovely stuff – including launching Dingley Dell in China.” That’s on hold, but no pandemic will stop the farm’s conservation work. Bee- and wildlife-friendly plantings of phacelia, clover, buckwheat, vetch create a beautiful living frame for the pig arks, especially as summer comes. And Covid-19 won’t stop Mark’s drive for flavour, either, through a breeding programme that seeks to achieve the perfect amount of intramuscular fat (marbling) in his pigs. “The better-tasting the meat, the more value people will put on it. The idea of mass-market pork is abhorrent to me. Far better to ‘eat less, eat better’, spend a bit more.”
It’s a view that chimes with Alice Pawsey at Shimpling Park Farm. “The interest in provenance and healthy eating, and eating well at home will only grow,” she says. “The underlying panic at the beginning was about not having food. We haven’t felt that as a population. I think wariness will remain, the notion of not wasting food, of eating less but better quality.”
She’s confident it’ll ring true still in late July when lamb reared on the clover and grass of her family’s organic west Suffolk farm is ready. She misses the “incredible enthusiasm” of chefs for her meat but will continue to sell to butchers rather than go direct to customers. “I’d rather work with people like Lavenham Butchers, or Leeders of Boxford so they get some margin. They’ve been working incredibly hard these weeks, unbelievably busy, delivering, feeding people locally.”
The cycle of lamb production will continue because the flock has become an essential part of the organic system, naturally replenishing the soil so chemical inputs aren’t needed on crops of milling wheat, beans, malting barley and oats. There will continue to be a need for these crops too, says Alice’s husband, John: “It’s difficult to predict, but what we grow, people will still need. The 2008 recession hit organics hard for two years. But our food culture, the way we buy food, has changed so much since then.”
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The prize for positivity in the face of pandemic must go to Felixstowe Ferry fishmonger, James Hunt. Like Alice, he misses his restaurant business. “Before, half my turnover was to chefs. I’ve had to think smarter, adapt. I’ve re-evaluated everything. I’m more in tune with my customers than ever now.” James has taken to Instagram with videos that are the very definition of loving your job. His slab gleams with mackerel and monkfish from Cornwall, Dover sole and lobster from local fishermen, crab, vast halibut, brill, line-caught pollack, turbot, Shetland cod, pink-tinged skate, beady-eyed langoustines.
“Amazing stuff. The sea-to-plate relationship has never been so intense,” he says. “I was so excited about getting this fish out for customers that I bought a new knife – four in fact! There are positives, you know.”
This is a snapshot of experiences. Suffolk Magazine is always keen to hear producers’ stories – do get in touch. firstname.lastname@example.org
Save our cheeses
One of the most optimistic stories to emerge is that of Fen Farm Dairy. When hospitality closed for business on that day in March, it threw into jeopardy the livelihood of artisanal cheesemakers around the country. Jonny and Dulcie Crickmore saw sales of their raw milk Baron Bigod brie and butter slump by 70 per cent.
“We had never really worked out the split between retail and restaurant sales,” says Dulcie. “Hospitality accounted for far more than we thought!” The couple hoped to “scrape through”, at least be able eventually to offer furloughed staff their jobs back. As the nation’s coffee shop habits were curtailed, the situation became critical. “Arla, our main milk buyer, continued to pay its farmer members a good price,” says Jonny, “while other processors dropped milk prices to 7ppl - half the cost of production - to not paying at all.”
Find out more about the Fen Farm Dairy and the raw milk revolution
“And we had seven weeks’ worth of cheese on the shelves,” says Dulcie. “We knew our customers were still there, but how to reach them? We scrambled around to get online sales going. They had always been a tiny percentage of business.”
Then Jonny called Sheila Dillon of the BBC Radio 4 Food Programme who spoke with Jamie Oliver who swung into Instagram action – persuaded also by Neal’s Yard Dairy – with a call (and link to buy in his bio) to Save Our British Farmhouse Cheeses. Awareness of the crisis reached millions. “Within two and a half hours of Jamie’s post, we had sold our entire stock,” says Dulcie. “It was spectacular!” Staff were un-furloughed and the last week in April was busier than Christmas.
The online business will continue at Fen Farm. “You can work out what people really want,” says Dulcie. “Orders haven’t slowed – in fact we could have sold twice as much.” She’s hopeful that the interest in local, small-scale producers will continue beyond Covid-19. “This has been time to think about food and our connection with it, and the pleasure in buying locally.”