Farms are all around us and easy to take for granted. But there’s a lot more going on than there was a generation ago, as farms diversify to help secure their futures. Reporter Kimberley Barber investigates
When figures hit my desk that showed how little the British public know about what is produced on British farms, I decided to take a look at a farm that has bucked the national trend and flourished, despite the tough times the industry is facing.
Westlands Farm at Pricketts Hill, Shedfield, is a glowing example of one that has diversified and adapted with the times to ensure its survival.
It has broken links with the supermarkets, after they put too much pressure on the farm to bring down costs regardless of the consequences, and has set up a shop and cafe-restaurant where locals flock to enjoy top-quality produce direct from the farm.
It’s also resisted the urge to sell up land for development, with a 13-acre site in Shedfield and a 90-acre site in Bishop’s Waltham.
The research conducted by charity Leaf, which works to deliver sustainable farming, showed that only four in 10 of those questioned understood that buying seasonally supported British farmers.
Annabel Shackleton, from the charity, explains, ‘Alarmingly there appears to be a decline in knowledge about what UK farmers grow and when to buy homegrown produce.
‘Initiatives are being run in schools to help improve children’s knowledge but it seems adults could do with some lessons too.
‘One in 10 people questioned admitted to having been left embarrassed by asking for something that wasn’t in season, but much greater numbers than that have a problem understanding seasonality.
‘The agricultural industry is worth billions to the British economy, so it is important that we know what homegrown produce to look out for when shopping. Talking to a farmer is a great way to discover more about your food.’
So that’s why I head to Westlands Farm, to talk to Kayleigh Davey, a young fresh-faced farmer, who is a million miles away from a stereotyped bearded Farmer Giles. Kayleigh’s passion for farming came when she grew up in Northumberland, surrounded by countryside. She went on to do an agricultural degree, and met fiance Graham Collett through an association called Young Farmers. Now the couple work together on Westlands Farm. They hope their son Thomas, who is 18 months old, will be the 13th generation of farmer at Westlands.
But to ensure the farm’s survival they recognise it’s a battle to educate the public as to what happens on a farm and explain why people should shun the convenience of a supermarket and shop direct.
Kayleigh says, ‘We opened the shop in 2001 and the tea rooms have been open a year now, we are very much a family business.’
I’ve brought 17-year-old Matt Emmens, from Locks Heath, with me to get a teenager’s perspective of the farm, and Kayleigh takes us on a tour. Our first stop is in the polytunnel where we meet her father-in-law Steve Collett, who is tending to his vegetables.
Steve tells us about the huge pressure faced by British farmers as they compete globally to secure the supermarket contracts and the impact that has on the produce.
He says, ‘Most of the fruit and veg in this country comes from Spain now. It travels huge distances. Thirty years ago we were major fruit and veg growers, just on this farm we used to have 40 people working, but supermarket buying policy has destroyed that.’
And the differences between the supermarket produce and the fruit and veg grown on the farm are clear.
Take the tomatoes, they are much bigger than the supermarket and a full-bodied red.
Steve says, ‘Supermarket tomatoes are grown in a little square block of rock wool and they have a drip that brings liquid feed and nutrients to them, so they haven’t got a very good flavour. Our tomatoes are grown in the soil and that makes a big difference to the taste. Supermarket tomatoes to us purists are just red bags of water.’
That’s just one example of where the produce differs – the cucumbers are not in plastic sleeves and that’s because they have not been subjected to any irradiation or processes to make them last longer.
Whatever does not get sold that day on Westlands Farm gets recycled back into the farm. It’s travelled metres instead of the supermarkets’ thousands of miles and is the freshest you can buy.
Despite Westlands Farm holding frequent open days and inviting schools to have a look around, Kayleigh and Steve are often shocked by how little the public knows.
Steve says, ‘I have had people say to me that potatoes grow on bushes, things like that. The younger generation in particular are quite ignorant as to how their food is produced.
‘Little old ladies come in here and they can tell you the varieties of potatoes because they were brought up by their mother in the kitchen from an early age and were given training and grounding in what is grown and how. Young people today have become very detached from how we as the human race exist. Without the earth we would not be here.’
And Steve’s point has been proved by research conducted by Leaf that showed how little young people know about farm produce. The figures showed that 18 per cent thought oranges were grown in the UK, and eight per cent thought bananas were from British farms too.
Kayleigh says, ‘We’ve had questions like “do you have to kill the sheep to get the wool off them?”, it’s quite scary.’
Steve says, ‘They don’t teach it in schools any more. When I was young even the lads who had grown up in towns had an understanding. Most people nowadays, if you ask them where their fruit and veg comes from, they will say Sainsbury’s.’
Kayleigh adds, ‘We have come full circle. We used to grow for the supermarkets and they were putting so much pressure on us that we got out. That’s when we got into livestock production and set up the farm shop, and then we came full circle as we started growing fruit and veg again to sell through the farm shop.’
Matt Emmens, 17, from Locks Heath, a student at Itchen College, tells of his experience visiting Westlands Farm
‘I like to think that I know a decent amount about farms. I know which animals are bred, I know what types of crops are grown and I know what types of fruit and vegetables are grown.
‘A majority of my knowledge didn’t come from learning these things at school. I learnt about farms from my parents as I was growing up.
‘I learnt about farms from films, television and books. I learnt about farms though asking my parents or looking up things on the internet.
‘But not every child is as curious as I am. Therefore, without education from schools, children either have a limited or no understanding of farms and the countryside.
‘This is concerning as children are growing up without knowing where their food comes from.
‘My knowledge is still quite basic, as my trip to Westlands Farm showed me.
‘My eyes were opened when I learnt how they grow vegetables and rear livestock.
‘I also learnt the difference between the produce sold in the farm shop and the produce that supermarkets sell.
‘This trip showed me how a farm operates as a business.
‘It’s important we teach young children about farms and the countryside as I feel it’s important that children understand how their food is produced and where it comes from.
‘It’s important that children learn the difference between the food they can buy at the supermarket and the food which they are able to buy directly from a farm shop.’
Low on knowledge
Research carried out by Leaf – a charitable organisation that works to deliver more sustainable food and farming – revealed how little we know about which fruit and veg are grown on British farms.
A survey of 2,000 people showed that many were unable to say which fruit and vegetables were grown on British farms.
- One in five didn’t know we grew apples.
- A third didn’t know we grew iceberg lettuce.
- 80 per cent did not know aubergines were grown on British farms.
Three-quarters of UK adults admitted to being clueless when it comes to seasonality, with many unaware they could buy British strawberries in the summer months and homegrown Brussels sprouts in December.
Many consumers didn’t know that British farmers even grew foods such as aubergines (19 per cent), blueberries (63 per cent), sweetcorn (62 per cent), iceberg lettuce (37 per cent), cauliflower (29 per cent), carrots (21 per cent) or even apples (19 per cent).
Research showed that those born in the 1990s have significantly less knowledge than previous generations. If you were born in the 1990s rather than the 1950s you are:
- 1.5 times less likely to know British farmers grew strawberries (64 per cent compared with 93 per cent)
- 2.5 times less likely to know you could buy British sprouts in December (27 per cent compared with 73 per cent)
- Three times less likely to know when to buy British asparagus (15 per cent compared with 44 per cent)
- Twice as likely to not know that iceberg lettuce is grown on British farms (37 per cent compared with 80 per cent)
- 2.5 times less likely to know you can buy homegrown red cabbage (30 per cent compared with 74 per cent)
Many adults born in the 1990s also thought we grew oranges (16 per cent), bananas (eight per cent), kiwi fruits and mangoes (both five per cent).
Meanwhile, large numbers did not know we grew cauliflower (55 per cent) or carrots (39 per cent).