East Suffolk: The festival, the fringe and the new age of farmer-marketeers

ALDEBURGH Food and Drink Festival fortnight kicks off on September 29, but a host of fringe events around East Suffolk are already providing a taste of what’s to come. SARAH CHAMBERS speaks to farmers, growers and festival organisers about the “Fringe effect” and the festival’s growing influence in shaping a brighter future for our food producers.

FEW farmers are good marketeers, says William Kendall, one of the founders of the Aldeburgh Food and Drink Festival.

The Saxmundham-based entrepreneur and organic farmer believes that, with some noteworthy exceptions, UK farmers simply aren’t that good at promoting their products, however good they might be at growing or rearing them.

It’s just as well then that, for those in east Suffolk at least, the food and drink festival, and the fringe events around it, continue to provide a showcase for some extraordinary gems which might otherwise remain hidden from general view.

“I’m favourably surprised at how many fringe events there are,” admits William. “This boils down to people who are good at marketing and people who aren’t.

“Farmers, primary producers, aren’t very good at it as a class. There are some excellent exceptions, but it’s not something they have had to do or been made to do.”

It is this lack of marketing background or training which often holds back some otherwise quite remarkable farming businesses, believes the entrepreneur, who built up the New Covent Garden Soup Company before selling it to a public company and then grew Green & Black’s into an international brand before selling it to Cadbury’s.

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When the festival, the brainchild of a small group of dedicated “foodies” including William, Alesha Gooderham of Snape Maltings, which remains the central fulcrum of the main event, Aldeburgh hotelier Tim Rowan Robinson and food campaigner Caroline Cranbrook, was launched in 2006, it attracted around 4,000 to 5,000 people. Today, it attracts twice that.

“We wanted to catalyse things. We wanted to create an awareness fortnight,” explains William.

The event was aimed at celebrating the abundance of food the area produces and at helping people reconnect with the countryside. In that, it can lay claim to some considerable success: while it can be difficult to gauge its effect on the county’s sense of connection with the countryside, or its economic success in precise terms, it is estimated that it attracts at least an additional �1.75million to the county, and awareness of food issues is on the rise.

Food and drink tourism is estimated to be worth around �600million to the Suffolk economy. Added to this, Suffolk is a primary growing area, with the free-draining soils of the county’s coast providing perfect conditions for vegetable crops. Pig farming is also big business, and arable production remains an important facet of farming in East Anglia.

Much of this activity doesn’t involve a public-facing side, but William believes that farmers who plough a lone furrow and shun chances to engage with consumers are making a mistake.

“What we try and do is encourage them to have a go,” says William. “Here’s a time of the year when the public is primed to be engaged with what you are doing.”

Among those “having a go” is Andy Williams, farm manager at Home Farm, Nacton, near Ipswich. William is a big fan of Andy, and believes he is a good example of a farmer engaging with his market.

“Andy is a brilliant producer. He’s a brilliant marketeer as well. He’s always been interested in doing more than just producing a large quantity of a product,” he says.

“They are brilliant producers. They are producing some of the best produce in the country. The more we can eat here, the better.”

This year, like William at Maple Farm, Kelsale, Andy will be inviting visitors to take part in a guided walk around the farm’s organic land and hear how it is managed.

The Nacton operation is a large one, and well run, supplying food nationally as well as locally.

Andy and the team at Nacton have worked hard to build up that local base, although at times, he admits, it has felt a thankless task.

Finally, though, he is beginning to break through into new markets.

Home Farm, Nacton had a stand at the festival last year, and the invitation to visit the farm as part of the fringe events builds on the success of that, he explains.

“We sold produce from a stand there and we had lots of good feedback, sold a fair bit of produce but also picked up one or two good leads that have led on to other

things,” he says.

“This is the first time we have actually listed ourselves and got involved directly. We are quite regularly asked whether we have open days or farm walks so it seemed like a good event to hang it on really while there are people with a food interest in the area.”

As well as attracting high profile chefs and food writers, the festival is a magnet for London catering establishments and wholesalers. The event has become an awareness-building exercise and one which businesses like Andy’s can capitalise on.

“The reason they come is because of the food story. What they are seeing here is this extraordindary local economy of producers in every village,” explains William.

He explains how, when Waitrose came to Saxmundham, the organisers of the festival were able to introduce the supermarket to some of its standholders, and impress it with the quality of what they had to offer.

“We pulled together quite a few of the local producers from the festival and introduced them to Waitrose,” he says.

The Waitrose buyers were impressed enough to decide to stock much of the produce at the local store.

“Saxmundham is now Waitrose’s pathfinder store for ultra local,” says William.

Andy believes the festival has become a “really good shop window” for what Suffolk can produce, and generates a lot of interest in the county’s food industry.

“We are now supplying into several local East of England Co-op stores and I think that helped us crack that particular nut as well because they have a presence at the food festival,” he says.

“I have been working on this for five years but it does feel in the last 12 months as though we have really started to make some progress. There have been times in the last five years when we have wondered what we are doing,” he admits.

The 2012 festival is organised by Tim Rowan-Robinson, Alesha Gooderham, William Kendall and Jenny Loyd, with Lady Cranbrook as its president. It is supported by Suffolk County Council, underlining its growing importance as a driver of economic prosperity in the area.

This year it will not be staging its highly successful food conference event, which has run in tandem with the festival for the last couple of years, because of problems with funding. However, organisers are looking at reviving it next year and using it to bring the issue of food security to the fore.

Beyond this though, there is an expanding festival fringe which is growing in importance.

Local farmers and growers are becoming increasingly conscious of how it can help raise the profiles of their businesses.

Farmer Rob White of Peakhill Farm, Theberton, near Leiston, is a strong supporter of the event and enjoys the atmosphere it creates.

Rob, who rears cattle organically and also grows organic salad crops, has previously always supported the festival and run farm walks. This year, he has linked up with his friend Rob Sledmere, founder of local food provider the Suffolk Providore, who now also runs Middleton Farm Shop near Leiston, and will be providing his beefburgers at the Peakhill Farm Pop-up Cinema festival fringe event at Middleton Farm Shop.

“it’s just a bit of fun,” he says. “We live in food heaven, so it does bring your attention to how many good food producers there are around here and the local element to it as well.

“It’s very good. It rounds off the year nicely.”

Rob, who used to run a diverse set of activities on the family farm, decided to focus on the two organic lines after realising that it was best to do two things well than a lot of things less well.

This has enabled him to develop a solid reputation, and his salad products now go into Middleton farm shop and Marlesford farm shop.

Rob Sledmere will be hosting a steak night and butchery demonstration at Middleton Farm Shop with butcher Gerard King of the Broxtead Butchery in Wherstead.

As he spends much of his time on the road collecting and delivering food through his Suffolk Providore business, Rob has got to know many of the area’s food producers and has helped festival organisers in pulling together the fringe events.

Unlike some other food festivals, the Aldeburgh event relies heavily on volunteers, says William, and a spirit of co-operation between them. It is a “very tight ship” run on a relatively small budget, he adds.

“We have always relied on everyone mucking in and lots of volunteers,” he says.

“I think we have got more fringe events than ever before. We are constrained by geography at Snape. We could have three times as many stall holders if we had the space, but we don’t want to lose the magic of the event.”

For Rob Sledmere, the fringe is part of what makes the festival special. “The whole fringe fortnight opens it up to almost anybody involved in food production, however small,” he says.

“If you can’t get to the main event for whatever reason you can still host a fringe event. It’s getting better and better as well. I have certainly noticed a build-up to this year’s festival and the fringe in particular. A lot of people come into the area from the outside for the festival.”

The Aldeburgh Food & Drink Festival, from September 29 to October 14, encompasses a main festival weekend at Snape Maltings on September 29 and 30.

It forms part of a two-week celebration of the abundance of good local food and drink to be found in East Suffolk.

The main festival weekend includes a wide variety of talks, workshops and cookery demonstrations.

Among the top chefs who have already confirmed that they will be visiting in 2012 are festival lover Thomasina Miers, winner of Masterchef and owner of Wahaca restaurant group, who will be sourcing the “The Best of the Festival Produce” from all the producers on show and then creating a Suffolk Surprise.

She will be joined by Valentine Warner, food writer, chef and culinary adventurer, Angela Hartnett, Henry Harris, Matthew Fort, Galton Blackiston, and Emma Crowhurst.

A series of fringe events in the Suffolk Coastal area in September and October will be showcasing the “field to fork” principle behind the event, and providing unique opportunities to visit producers, explore the countryside and experience new dining experiences.

For details of fringe events, visit the website www.aldeburghfoodanddrinkfestival.co.uk .