Hill farming, hogs, and hope – High Farndale

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“You don’t want to be hill farmers, do you?”  This was the reaction of one local when Peter Mawson and his partner, Nicola, decided on a drastic change in direction and bought a tumble-down farm in the uplands of North Yorkshire.

After a great deal of work and restoration whilst living in a caravan, they now rear sheep and pigs, producing hogget, pork, and bacon.  Working as naturally as possible with the land, they hope to be an example of how meat can, and should, be reared and eaten. 

Locavore spoke with Peter about High Farndale, the difficulty of hill farming, and his hopes for a change in consumer habits. 

You haven’t always been a farmer.  What inspired you to start farming?

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall is to blame! I thoroughly enjoyed his first few series where he outlined the origins of the food we eat.

I joined the RAF in 1988, working in air traffic control and operations until 1997. The military didn’t provide transferable qualifications, so I had to identify how best to relate my skills to the job market. This was prior to the 1999 dotcom boom and I had been using computer communication systems that would have appeared science fiction-like in industry. My first real job was running a call centre in London. My career in marketing communications was born.  I worked for NCP for a decade, starting with that call centre and eventually running marketing and one part of the company.

My partner Nicola and I were looking for a place outside of London to do up and enjoy. The south was out of the question money-wise but, coming from Teesside, I’d completed my Duke of Edinburgh awards on the North York Moors. It took over a year but we eventually found our place. It wasn’t well looked after; it would be fair to say you had to have vision…

You farm Whitefaced Woodland sheep, a rare British Hill breed.  Why did you choose this breed over one of the more common ones?

We researched the sheep business and breeds; the first step is to understand what business you want to be in, either the commercial commodity market i.e. sending animals to a livestock market for meat, or something more niche? Up on the moors, sheep need to be hardy, but we wanted to keep the sheep outdoors all year and have them lamb outdoors too. Wool. Often undervalued. We also wanted to make something from the wool.

Whitefaced Woodland sheep are a handsome looking animal, are hardy, motherly and have garment quality wool. They’re also on the Rare Breed Survival Trust list of at-risk breeds. That helps with the story for the niche business we’re developing.

You don’t sell lamb, rather hogget instead.  What is the difference, and why did you decide to do so?

I always wanted to finish our sheep on grass, [it’s] more natural and produces a better quality meat than grain finishing. However our grass season is shorter at altitude.

Our lambs are born outdoors in May. That matches with the time temperatures are climbing, and grass growth has started. We try to manage our grass over the year but it’s harder to finish lambs before winter. Some lambs will be the correct size and weight, but the market is crowded with lamb at that time.

Hogget is more sought after. The lambs are kept through winter until they’re over a year old. The meat tastes more like lamb used to taste and is better nutritionally for humans. Again, for a niche business, it gives us a point of difference.

You also raise pigs.  What breed do you use?

British Saddleback pigs, another rare breed, but a hardy docile breed, good for both pork and bacon. We don’t cure the bacon here. Instead we’ve got our a little food network – the abattoir – the butcher – our dry-curing lady.

Hill farming is seen as difficult, with scarce profits and reliance on subsidies.  What has been your experience?

Ooh yeah! Hill farming is tough, almost impossible. Most people wouldn’t live the way many of our neighbours do, certainly existing on the income from sheep and a few cattle.

The changes to subsidy schemes could have a profound effect in the hills. A lot of the farms have second or even third incomes to pay the bills but the loss of land-based payments may push some to retire. Most of our neighbours are above the average age (58/59) of a UK farmer, say 65 to 75.

[This is] another reason why our model is based on selling direct to customers and small makers.

You mention in your blog that you plan to open a small restaurant on the farm.

Yes. We intend to provide a meal option for visitors to the moors, either weekend day trippers or guests at local B&Bs. Nicola and I ate at a farm kitchen in the countryside near Dijon in 2008. It was one of the best steaks I’d ever eaten. The beef was raised in the fields around the house. The key would be to attract people who would value eating a meal cooked by the shepherd.

Do you think that meat can be a part of sustainable food network, and a sustainable diet?

Yes and yes. Look for Joel Salatin on YouTubeThere are plenty of … films from his farm in the States. There are other examples in the US; Gabe Brown, Greg Judy, Colin Seis in Australia.

Factory farming is an abomination. Farming as close to or mimicking nature, building soil, and selling direct, has a future. Joel started on a impoverished farm with his father and now turns over more than $2m. All three of the other guys were broke back in the 90s and had to re-think their approach. There are farmers in the UK starting to think the same way. Meat is good for us. Grass fed meat is better for us than factory chicken.

Our bacon is available in a family-run food store in our local town. We can’t keep up with demand at the moment – it’s a great feeling to see people buying your produce and it being in demand. Local food.

What packaging do you use for delivery of your meat?

[We use] woolcool for pork and hogget – a cardboard box, woolcool sheets, and chill packs. All can be re-used. The wool (not ours, we buy this in) can be composted. Bacon and meat are vacuum packed in plastic. Bacon is sent by first class Royal Mail post in a cardboard envelope. It’s 0% water and 0% air, so no chill or insulation is required.

Do you also use the fleeces from your sheep?

They’re sold direct to spinners and felters. Some has gone to the US. The job is to get it made into yarn at a mill (about 30 minutes drive away). After that we could start knitting socks or similar.

How does your thinking around sustainability affect the way you work the land?

I don’t use chemicals on the land, rarely on the sheep fleece, and keep drug use to a minimum – I treat the sick, I don’t vaccinate. The job is to keep the animal healthy, without the drugs I could be wasting. The big job is to improve the soil, grow better grass, keep healthier sheep. I don’t use fertiliser. The sheep feed the soil biology. That grows grass. That feeds the sheep. That makes meat.

I’ll plant more trees, especially apple trees (pigs love apples).

[There is a video of] Joel picking up grass: I can do that on our traditional hay meadow fields (only 3% of these remain in the UK). Grassland is a carbon sink – cows and other ruminants are not a climate change risk.

What are your hopes and fears for the future, both for High Farndale and the wider world?

I hope more people will pay attention to the food they eat. I wish more would cook a meal and ditch the X Factor. Think about their food and not the latest iPhone. Eat less meat, eat better meat. Instead of yet more factory tasteless chicken, cook a vegetable-based meal. We do.

Tesco gave consumers horse meat and it’s as if no one noticed! Cheap food isn’t cheap in the long run. People campaign for higher NHS budgets, one long-term solution would be better food education.

For High Farndale I’d like to be selling to more local folk and more in the cities. Then inviting urban folk here on their travels. The big job is spreading the word and finding the right people to join our audience. I don’t aspire to sell to everyone in Tesco today. Some won’t be convinced, but some will. Some will be actively seeking to make a change for their families.

Finally, why do you do what you do?

Compared to working in the service sector the reward of selling your own product is 100% better. Selling at a farmers market to repeat customers will bring a smile to your face, I guarantee it!

My Mum and Dad were grafters; my Dad was a ship builder and my Mum worked for a supermarket in food quality (the irony!). Some of that rubbed off, it’s great to build something and nurture it.

Find High Farndale on Twitter here.

For their website, click here.

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