BRIGHTWALTON AND LECKHAMPSTEAD PLOUGH WEDNESDAY
Olivia Hall Craggs
Olivia Hall Craggs
This brainwave has introduced clergy to farms in the Oxford Diocese, for the last 9 years. 2014 it was our turn to host the event. We had chosen to visit Saddleback Farm Shop, watch some expert butchering, and see the cattle sheds in Brightwalton, before going up to Chapel Farm at Leckhampstead’s Hill Green.
A warmish grey day in January, at least it wasn’t raining, but we needed our boots!
Saddleback Farm shop, is on the B4494 6 miles south of Wantage. It was created by Clare Whidborne who began by introducing David Pill, her husband; Mum who does the accounts and looks after little Nell; Dad, Richard, is concerned with the farm’s arable and her brother Daniel, who is responsible for rearing the beef sold in the shop. Saddleback is a family-orientated shop and Clare acknowledged huge support from her own family -
Manor Farm has 1,200 acres, and the Whidbornes are third generation farmers . Grandpa originally took on the tenancy of the farm in Brightwalton and bought it in the 1950’s. Richard farms 1,000 acres as arable, there is 100 acres of grass for the cattle and 100 acres of woodland for rearing birds for the commercial shoot - all very productive. Wanting to be a producer herself, Clare couldn’t see herself on a tractor day in day out. She would have to do her own thing. She went Harper Adams College and studied agriculture, food and business from 2001 – 2005. She learnt about the supply chain of beef and the production of grain – good stead for managing the shop. After University, she worked as a trainee manager with the Royal Farms at Windsor, concerned with people and financial management. She was accountable for everything for 3 ½ years. She went in as a shy girl but gained confidence and clear vision. Dad was adamant Clare should know what she wanted - did she want to work seven days a week? It would be easier to work for someone else – she needed more experience, Windsor had been great, but unrealistically connected to what she could achieve financially. So for another 3 years she worked at Q Gardens farm shop, south of Oxford.
Whilst she was at Q Gardens she sought planning permission to convert the barns at “California” on the B4494. It took years to get permission - the Highways Department were obstructive, even citing increased traffic as a problem. She needed financial help for the start up. The maximum Defra grant was £50,000, which Saddleback obtained, the last such grant; They were lucky!
They were all ready to start building in November 2011, when Clare fell pregnant. Now Nell is 20 months, the shop has been open since September 2012 and is going from strength to strength. Clare & Dave have got to grips with running a business, embraced parenthood and were married in December - what a crazy year! They are looking forward to 2014 being more civilised. Trading through two Christmases and one summer has given great experience. They started with 6 employees, and now have 12; it is a very positive business with a turn over that increases.
Tea room sales have increased 3 fold from last December. They see what they do themselves (beef, hampers, tea room) are their most successful areas. They breed their own beef, and control their nutrition, injections etc. which is good for the quality. Husband David slaughters the venison to sell in the shop. Deer, although wild, need a certain amount of management.
The wheat and flour are local. Dave, whose own farm is 7 miles north, sells corn to Wessex Mill in Wantage, Saddleback’s baker uses the Mill’s flour. Everything is local - pies, pasties, sausage rolls, ready meals – 100 % trust passed on to the customers. The tea room’s original few tables have multiplied, big tables have been added so a family can sit down and eat breakfast together. “We aim to sell, honest, nicely-presented food at a realistic price. We are a showcase for local producers of seasonal food. Our prices are competitive because we go straight to the growers, avoiding the supermarkets’ chain of handlers.”
Planners granted permission with 20 conditions in regard to appearance and stock. They demanded that 70 % of what is sold in the shop be produced by the Whidbornes. But Saddleback wants to showcase other small businesses. Local supplier Susie Kensett has perfected her chutney-making, why should Clare compete? Luckily the Council came round to Clare’s logic.
January and February are the quiet months; thinking you can sit back and wait for the folk to come just isn’t good enough, so they run courses at the shop, aiming to educate their customers to the Saddleback ethos. They’ve run a Bread Day, offering breakfast, lunch and a visit to the Mill, to see the wheat fields, and watch the baker demonstrate bread making. It is surprising what people don’t know and what they take for granted. Her staff are enthusiastic and keen to maintain the shop’s momentum. They are taking bookings for Burns Night, they do lunches for businesses, they have even prepared a lunch for Samantha Cameron (in her own dish); they offer ready meals and delivery to the elderly housebound.
Next we were invited over to the empty barn beside Saddleback to see Alan Hayward butcher a deer. It was displayed on a bench, headless and with half its skin peeled back. Before his demonstration he had someone help hang up the carcase – it took but an hour to reduce it all to joints on the table. Alan has been a butcher for 52 years and his dextrous knife showed it.
The Berkshire countryside is grossly over-populated with deer, we see herds of 50 or more; they may look lovely but they take the farmers’ crops and trees. Like all aspects of the food industry, game is subject to new legislation, and is safe to eat. Each carcase must bear a label declaring the name of the hunter, to show he shot it, he didn’t just pick it up from a field. Refrigeration is essential. You can have meat high and strong, but nowadays most game is eaten within days.
There are 6 species of deer in the United Kingdom – in Berkshire there are big herds of fallow. There are Chinese water deer, escaped from Bedford; muntjac with devilish little horns and teeth; Roe deer are majestic and best to eat; Sika deer are found in Dorset and Scotland; Red deer are the biggest – they all taste different. The skins fetch a low price from the tanners in Glasgow, they’ll be made into moccasin shoes or clothing. At least Alan doesn’t have to pay to get rid of them (waste disposal is very expensive)
This fallow deer was shot the previous day by Dave Pill at Hendred. Nowadays the hunter is more precise, he aims for the head, not wishing to “blow out” the shoulders.
Yes the offal is used, but not when the deer is in rut. Then they urinate on the ground, and roll in it to alert the females they are in rut. The taste of urine can go right through the meat.
Shoulder is always the roasting joint, mince has taken over from stewing steak. Alan’s most popular joint is saddle eye fillet, but he uses everything on the carcase. He found a lymph node, which he uses as a secondary check on the animal’s health. Super market venison is not wild. Deer farming was very popular ten years ago, but it costs twice the price of wild deer. It is guaranteed to be tender but lacks flavour, and is little different from farmed animals.
Deer survive completely on their own, eating our lovely crops. No deer are indigenous, The Normans brought over the fallow deer, and red deer have survived in Ireland, all other deer have been re-introduced or escaped from private collections.
As he sawed off the breast there was a neat joke “muntjac taste of roses”. (We spent an hour watching Alan reduce the carcase to useable pieces of meat, he is a real showman and handled comments from the floor as he worked) Deer dont suffer from foot and mouth, they are very resilient, get over most things. But around Andover the ticks get onto the deer from the bracken.
The neck gives a lot of meat. When the deer are in rut all the meat moves forward, as they don’t eat for several weeks they need all their muscle and fat to get by. Alan processes 5,000 deer a winter, The haunch was next, sawn into three joints.
Then a rack of venison to BBQ.
This deer weighed 50 kg. It could feed 250 people. The hunter is paid £3 per kilo off the field =£150; carcase sold wholesale at £300, butcher adds £150 = £450 in the shop. The hunter cuts its neck immediately in the field, to ensure instant death and to bleed it. Back at the shop he removes the offal. The EU stipulates that entrails are not to be left in the field (for the kites). They do need to be culled, we don’t need hundreds of deer on the land.
We played follow-my-leader in our cars from Saddleback to the edge of Brightwalton to visit Dan’s beef sheds. He had Brook, his pure-bred Aberdeen Angus bull, penned for our admiration. He is a docile creature, responsible for all these cows in the sheds around. But he is frightened by the vet’s needle!
The heifers and cows have to be big and strong to take his weight. The cows are last year’s calves, they need two years to be fattened thereafter. We were looking at some “fit to go” for slaughter. The carcase hangs for a month with Alan Hayward at Casey’s Field Farm, Ashampstead.. Most of Daniel’s beef goes to Saddleback, they take one carcase a week. Surplus goes to Marks & Spencers or Morison who pay 40p premium on Anguses. Morisons are very supportive, but Tesco’s have been the worst supermarket to deal with. However the horse meat scandal has “tidied up” the situation for farmers, and Tesco’s have improved.
Last year’s bull calves were castrated a week ago, which will encourage their growth. But they are still keeping the heifers separate. They keep the heifers to fatten but cannot breed from them because they all were fathered by Brook. Sometimes they buy in replacement dams privately or from the markets in Thame or Cirencester. They plan to keep Brook indefinitely. One of the visitors (who knew her cattle) had noticed a British Blue, she is a heifer from a Dairy cross and will give good milk for her calf. But British Blues are thin-skinned, they can’t stay out in the winter, whereas the Aberdeens ‘find our winters like their summer’!
Daniel is always worried about his bottom line. Cows might have a calf at foot and be pregnant. Experimentally he has AI’d some heifers, for instance the Blue roan was AI’d on the Royal wedding day, (also Daniel’s birthday!). The semen was frozen but since the bull had died, its price had increased. Heifers will make better beef animals, sweeter meat.
The TB testing is yearly. the disease is not so problematical in this area. They have to test everything that goes off the farm. Trace tests are carried out occasionally by Defra, who are a nightmare. Two years ago Manor Farm changed vets but Defra continues to contact the previous vet. Testing for TB guarantees work, but Daniel’s vet is already busy - they might contract out the testing. The farmer can combine the TB test with other jobs and avoid the vet’s call-out charge. At the vet’s last visit Daniel had him check the cows’ pregnancies, Brook had covered them all satisfactorily in 50 days. Yes, there are badgers on the farm. They are very territorial, if you cull one with TB, another will move into his territory.
We looked at the enormous red and green feeder wagon, the calves are on growing rations with more protein. The cattle need more starch – they have grass silage and rolled barley. The farm gets 3 cuts of silage a year. Daniel keeps the 40 cattle in-calf up at the farm by his house so he can watch out for calves’ arrival. There was one dead in the gateway yesterday, he doesn’t know why. Perhaps it was ragwort in the feed, a post mortem would be too expensive. The carcase goes to the hunt (cheaper than paying to dispose of it himself)
Giles, the Gamekeeper, doesn’t like the Hunt, so it doesn’t come over their land. Yes Dan can take a holiday, go ski-ing, the family would mind the cattle.
From the West Country came advice that berried holly should be hung in the rafters of the shed to get rid of ringworm. Maybe it works, maybe the ringworm just goes away. Daniel was asked to outline an average day – he starts at 8 am, but he doesn’t finish at 5. The don’t have to milk, but alternate days they bed up (another smart new machine to blow straw over the backs of the cattle). When they are combine harvesting the days are longer. They also have a baling business, buying in straw from local farmers, to bale up and sell onto the West Country.
The Whidbornes started the beef herd to keep good staff on through the winter. They employ 3 full-time men plus Daniel and Richard. One person per 1,000 acres is the norm. The lower roadside shed by the new fattening unit is nice and airy. Cattle are nosy creatures and they like to see the passing traffic, people walking their dogs and the children.
He does give farm tours, but not a lot “as you can tell by my public speaking!!”
He is really pleased to hear customers’ enthusiasm over Saddleback’s meat.
The risks are with TB, and the weather which affects the quality of the silage. For instance 2012 was a bad summer, the grass was not so good in the field for the cows, and the silage was poor. It takes 12 months for the farm to recover from a bad year.
Back into the cars, pit stop advised at Leckhanpstead Hall for the loos. On to Chapel Farm at Hill Green, Leckhampstead where in the huge barn Clare and Diana Whidborne served us with a good, hot, sit-down lunch from Saddleback and we appreciated the Walkers’ heater.
Ian Brown told us that in 1923 his grandfather had walked, yes walked, the cows over to Chapel Farm, from Mapledurham,near Reading after milking. But the herd had to go during the War and Ian’s father Jim concentrated on arable and managed a nearby farm in Peasemore. In 1966 Ian left school; Grandfather also died and Jim took over Chapel Farm - 300 acres arable and 2 full-time staff. After College Ian went into pigs, for 29 years; at peak production they were sending 9.5 thousand pigs per year to Sainsbury. But the market for pigs went down and the last one went in 2001. The vet couldn’t visit Chapel Farm lest Foot & Mouth was transferred between the pigs and the animal feed stuffs Ian was also producing. The vet told Ian “I am not going to allow you to continue to keep pigs” .
A friend with a farm shop near Stroud asked for some rabbit feed, Ian and Mary Anne made up the order on the kitchen table. They produced bird seed on the farm and Farmer Brown’s Products was born. Checking prices on the bird seed in a local garden centre, Ian nearly got thrown out by the manager. But they had just sacked their supplier, so Ian began to supply their 10 shops. After various buy outs of garden centres and agricultural suppliers during 15 years, Ian’s turn-over peaked at more than £1m. Scats chucked him out, Farmer Brown’s bird seed market was halved. They must diversify again.
In 1995 Ian and Mary Anne had come to Chapel Farm, when Jim moved out. After an aborted sale of Field House in Leckhampstead, they sold the house to an American. He introduced Ian to Bacteria for Agriculture, Ian is not a marketing expert, he prefers to produce things. But his son James specialises in Micro Biology and took up the American’s product. Ian could not tell us of James’ procedures, as he talks too much!!
James has bacteria for compost production, which reduces smells and saves time. He takes green waste from 7 boroughs in London – grass, shrubs from parks, household food waste – which is double composted to kill off the pathogens.
James produces bacteria for waste water. They have conducted trials in the loos of a company they supply – no smells! The bacteria go down, but the nasties are digested. These trials have given Ian much confidence.
Other bacteria are used for waterless urinals, obviating flushing. This saves an amazing 100,000 litres of water per urinal per annum. The production is similar to a brewing process; the bacteria is alive and must be handled with care. There is a contract to supply all the terminals at Heathrow; and another national company is in negotiation with James.
Different bacteria fix nitrogen from the atmosphere into the soil under the name “Enfixa”. In 2012 10,000 acres-worth of “Enfixa” was sold, in 2013 40,000 acres-worth was sold. If this continues for 5 years Ian will feel confident in its future.
No, they won’t be patenting it, as that tells everyone else how to do it. How to keep a secret? don’t even tell Dad!
The Browns know that their 300 acres plus 280 acres rented do not make a viable farm. They are always at the mercy of the variable weather and the fluctuations of the financial market. If one enterprise goes down, hopefully another will be up. Ian enjoys his life as a farmer but he stressed he needs his Christian faith to achieve it.
Our last stop was St James’ Leckhampstead for Evensong when the Bishop of Reading, Andrew Proud, shared his enthusiasm. For him, an admitted Urbanite, it had been a “day well spent” – not in his car, not in his office nor at meetings. Today he had seen glimpses of the Downs from the farm shop and from Ian’s barn. How often do we stop to appreciate God’s gift of the world and its Beauty? At random he remembered some phrases from the day –
You are going to see the Best of the British Countryside (John Townend)
Deer, amazing creatures – I love ‘em! (Alan Hayward)
You have to bounce back (Ian Brown)
Bishop Andrew had been fascinated by the human stories outlined in the context of God’s creation; by the long-term husbandry (those frozen semen) the ingenuity, the hard work, effort and momentum (Saddleback). He admired the rural hub created by the shop, with wheat from surrounding fields milled in Wantage, the deer locally grown and butchered – reminding us of our food’s provenance.
It was gratifying to hear he had been thrilled with the day!
When our visitors had all gone we heard that the venison, cut up in front of us, had all been sold!