Could Lancashire feed itself?

‘Could lancashire feed itself?’ Was the question that popped into my head when I was approached by academics John Witton and Ioan Parry from the University of Central Lancashire. They wanted me to help them to talk to farmers as part of a piece of research they were carrying out around sustainable farming in the county. It’s a question that has been at the back of my mind since setting up the Larder cafe 5 years and realising the amazing diversity of food production in the county and more recently with the cost of living crisis and food shortages.

As a farmers daughter, my first thought when given this challenge was that it needed to be of benefit to farmers and not just be an academic exercise. My second thought was that it was a good opportunity to resurrect the Sustainable Food Lancashire Charter, a piece of work I did 10 years ago which involved carrying out a series of 9 consultation events with nearly 400 foodie people.

I knew that there was no point in expecting busy farmers to give up a whole day to travel to one central location so decided to plan 4 events at farms at the 4 corners of the county, or thereabouts. I wanted to have a diverse range of farms which represented farming in Lancashire. I went back to the Uclan guys with my idea and they were happy to put faith in me and managed to get me some funding.

I called my old friends Harold Elletson, Peter Ascroft and Ian O’Reilly and before I’d had chance to fully explain what I was asking of them, I had my 3 host farms. I was then told about a couple who were trying to set up a calf with cow dairy, I knew of the concept as I had visited the Ethical Dairy in Dumfries many times, their ice-cream is to die for! I got in touch and a few days later I was sitting at the kitchen table drinking tea with Lisa and Michael and listening to all the obstacles that were preventing them from achieving their goal. This conversation sparked another question: ‘Could these events be an opportunity to set up a support network of farmers and farming organisations who could deal with barriers to farming more sustainably collectively?’

With the host farms and dates confirmed I then needed speakers. I contacted a few people I knew, some I hadn’t been in touch with for years and some who were recommended by the hosts and everyone said yes!

The next job was to make a list of all the relevant people I’d worked with, spoken to and heard about over the last 10 or so years. I set out to target people at this initial stage with a view to introducing a wider audience into the conversation once I had an idea about the possibilities. I sent out a save the date email and within hours replies started to come in. ‘Count me in’ was the gist of the responses and I knew I’d hit a nerve.

Over the next few weeks I had some fantastic conversations and was introduced to even more amazing people who wanted to be involved. I was keen to keep each event focused and intimate. I was aiming for about 20 people but actually got 25-30 which was actually perfect. The only thing then was to convince the Larder café chef and team to come up with a menu with limited local produce available.

Farm on the Fell

The first event was held in a chicken shed at the Farm on the Fell near Clitheroe, run by Lisa and Michael Kelsall. It started at 11, baggin time, and everyone got chance to enjoy a freshly made Eccles cake and a brew before we got started. I was delighted that Wilma and David Finlay from the Ethical Dairy (delicious ice cream people) were willing to take a break from silage making and come down to tell us about their pioneering and inspirational journey. Abi Williams from the Food Ethics council also spoke brilliantly about the situation from a national perspective. We also discussed the true cost of food, through our work at the Larder we try to create a demand for better food and help people to understand that there is no such thing as ‘cheap food’. This conversation made me think about how we could get better at raising awareness of how food is produced and enlighten people about the impact of food production on animals, the environment and on communities.

The Larder café’s team did us proud and the lunch (we actually call it dinner in Lancashire) was amazing, it was great to hear people commenting how delicious everything was, especially the Eccles cakes! The rhubarb crumble cake and Lisa and Michael’s lemon meringue ice cream was my favourite bit.

Worthington’s Farm

The first event set the bar high so the Worthington’s farm meeting, held in a greenhouse, had a lot to live up to. It’s run by family friend Peter Ascroft who has been supporting my work since I started working on the Charter and in fact, I held a meeting in his greenhouse 10 years ago. First up was celebrity chef and owner at the Three Fishes, Nigel Haworth. Nigel has been friends with Peter for years and buys a lot of produce from him. Lisa Edwards, farmer and ex country chair of the NFU highlighted the issues she faced around flooding and the importance of water management in food production and Chris Treble, Quality Assurance Manager at Booths who supports farmers by sourcing locally.

Although the event highlighted some of the issues that farmers face such as flooding and rising production costs, I came away feeling optimistic and positive that collectively, we have the expertise to address some of these problems at a local level. The general consensus is that action is needed to support farmers and that there is huge power in tackling these issues collectively.

Parrox Hall

Parrox Hall is the oldest house in Lancashire and I was so happy that my friend Harold Elletson was up for hosting the third event. Harold is a landowner who wants to farm more sustainably but has tenants who have other ideas. It was brilliant that Vicki Hird, Head of Sustainable Farming at Sustain was able to come up from London to give us some great insight into national policy and Adam Briggs Environmental Advisor at the NFU (who was also involved in the original Charter conversations) raised some very key points about farmers always having to bear the risk and there needs to be more support further down the food chain. All the speakers agreed that farmers need incentives to help manage the risks involved in diversifying and becoming regenerative.

I particularly loved this quote from Harold ‘A farm gate isn’t a barrier, its an entrance to opportunities for better food, health and education’. The conversation also highlighted the importance of farmers and environmentalists working together to find solutions that support food production and nature.

 Gazegill Organics

The final event was held at Gazegill Organic farm in their newly built and very impressive restaurant. Ian and Emma O’Reilly have been another great support to me over the years especially during Covid when the larder café was producing 1000’s of meals for the Preston community and we needed donations of ingredients. Ian had recommended 2 amazing speakers Hilary McGuire from the RSPB who help farmers to support wildlife on their land and inspirational chef Tony Mulgrew who cooks at a special school using ingredients sourced from local farmers.

Hilary explained that 41% of UK wildlife species are in decline and that although farmers are on the frontline of conservation, they are also under pressure to produce even more food for less. Ian, who meets regularly with Hilary to help protect bird life on the farm, echoed her words and added; ‘we need to work with and protect the nature around us, because without it we have no farm and we wouldn’t be here’.

As a result of these events many friends have been made and at least one farmer has become part of the CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) network. The events have been unique with real engagement from around 90 farmers and farming organisations. Over those 2 weeks I had the most interesting conversations I’ve ever had. Despite the problems farmers are facing and the issues we discussed, there was a sense of hope, dignity and a strong appetite to form a collective. It felt like there was a real willingness from people to get involved in something, even though I haven’t quite worked out what that is yet.

I feel humbled, inspired, grateful and excited about what comes next. I feel like I’ve opened a huge can of worms and I’m keen to rise to the challenge. I especially liked this quote from Vicki Hird which nicely sums up how important it is to keep up the momentum and help give Lancashire farmers an opportunity to influence national policy.

“The Lancashire Larder’s conversations with farmers and on farms was a unique opportunity for me to explore what they need from new policies coming out thick and fast from Defra and as election manifestoes get drawn up. Will they be enough, will they deliver what farmers really need to both produce food but also protect nature and tackle climate adaptation? What about supply chain fairness and what can local authorities do to support better routes to markets for farmers like hubs, training, planning flexibility and infrastructure? The participants were clearly keen to see joined up thinking and, understandably, a clear vision for farming, with less policy instability and whole farm, nature friendly approaches.

This Lancs ‘summit’ felt rather more valuable compared to the No 10 event!”

I still don’t know whether Lancashire could feed itself, but I’ve now got a few more people to help me find out.

Kay Johnson MBE