Farming Opinion: Consumers should be brought down to earth, says David Upson

Apple grower and juice maker DAVID UPSON, of Stoke Farm, Battisford, near Stowmarket, is on the board of Tastes of Anglia and is a keen supporter of the local food movement. Here he talks about some of its core aims

I REMEMBER reading a poem regarding the changing relationship society has had with the food we put on our plates.

In medieval times, each family produced their own food and had a working knowledge of the seasonality of different crops. The Industrial Revolution saw the migration of families from toiling the sod to industries like the potteries and textiles, with food being produced on the outskirts of each community. This population movement has continued and now food is shipped world-wide, with beans picked in Africa today and on UK shelves 24 hours later.

This change of population demographics has unfortunately meant the only contact that the majority of people have with farming is via the media. Its image has become distorted and the understanding of food production is now woefully ignorant. Dirt on root vegetables is a no-no, and blemishes or mis-shaped fruit and vegetables is not acceptable as we now buy with our eyes and not by taste.

In 1984, my wife and I were given the helping hand to start pig farming, by the late Jeremy Dillon-Robinson, a founder member of Camgrain. He stated that our end goal should be to supply meat products directly to the public. We started to sell pork, but the majority of the public were sceptical about buying direct.

This scepticism was reinforced when we started top fruit growing (apples and pears), and tried to supply local wholesalers and shops.

During the mid-1990s, a subtle sea-change occurred. The rise in the organic movement and media concern over production methods became to the fore. The regional food group, Tastes of Anglia, held its first Feast East during this period, where small producers were stunned as customers swamped their stands looking for products, not necessarily grown, but produced locally with known provenance.

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The majority of the clientele attending had worked or been associated with agriculture during the 1940s.

The late 1990s saw the renaissance of farmers’ markets, transformed into a new guise of directly marketing to the public. The first regional market was held at Alder Carr Farm, Neeham Market. The publicity this generated promoted local food to a wider audience. These markets took off with vigour and were on the whole an over-night success, especially since the public seemed to enjoy being able to talk directly to grower-producers, and more importantly buy local. This milestone meant that local food was now becoming an important part of the local economy. This kick-started the re-education of the community about food production and farming practices. For example, a calf has to be born for a cow to lactate, and milk comes from a cow and not from a bottle.

Tastes of Anglia realised that they had to become more proactive to assist their members in introducing local food to a wider audience. Distribution being the key to expand this market. A trial was started in north Norfolk to supply local food direct to shops. This proved a success and in 2000 Tastes of Anglia Table was born. Its aim to give small artisan and primary food producers a direct selling and distribution link of locally produced regional food direct to the local market. Table was probably the countries first modern food link or food web, linking producer to the consumer. The consequence of Table distributing local food has been a reduction in food miles, a stimulated local food economy, and has had a knock-on positive effect upon carbon emissions. Locally produced is still at Table’s core and not an add on.

From the CPRE report “The value of England’s local food webs”, they found that 56% of shoppers purchased local to support producers,and 40% said they were prepared to pay more for local. The report also indicated that many shoppers found it hard to find or purchase local food. In East Anglia, this is not the case. There is a range of excellent farm shops and locally produced food can also be found on certain supermarket shelves, due to increasing customer demand.

Today while selling our juice, customers discuss what they should be doing to their trees. Mixed within these discussions are why does farming do this? or why doesn’t it do that! This relationship helps to build a positive relationship by re-educating those interested persons on the joys and challenges of farming. The end game of bringing the consumer closer to the earth.