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CASE STUDY: supporting local food

Kate Eshelby

19th June, 2009

A tireless crusader for rural revitalisation, Kate Eshelby meets the septuagenarian who beat Tesco out of town and is now at the heart of Suffolk’s local food revival

The Government needs to help small-scale producers. Britain needs to build self-reliance in food.

A sea of eyes glint as I approach the impressive house ahead. All around are fields of sheep enveloped in night darkness. This is Great Glemham, East Suffolk, the home of Lady Cranbrook, who is hosting a special dinner. The guests are all local food producers who have come together with the food they grow or produce for a big feast. The room is effervescent with chat, the table spread with pan-fried pigeon breast and venison, pheasant and beef stew, and endless other dishes and desserts.

It is apt to be having a feast like this in a region rich in delicious locally grown food. The area around Glemham has an extraordinary diversity of independent food and farm shops, delis, farmers’ markets and food producers. And a considerable part of this is thanks to one remarkable lady – Lady Caroline Cranbrook.

Alde Valley, where Glemham sits, is famed as the place where planning permission for a new superstore was turned down, halting the Tesco-isation of Britain and making it one of the country’s few superstore-free valleys, stretching from Ipswich to Lowestoft. As a result there has been an explosion of local foods, numerous small retailers flourish and a thriving local food economy exists – a testament to what happens with no superstore.

Caroline, a tireless campaigner on rural issues, began her campaigning career in 1997 when Tesco applied to build yet another store outside Saxmundham, her nearest town. She successfully fought against this soulless juggernaut by extensively researching Tesco’s potential impact on local food producers, strengthening the district council’s case that big supermarkets cripple local economies.

‘I calculated that if the superstore had come to Saxmundham, seven market towns would have changed dramatically,’ she says. ‘I surveyed 81 food shops in 19 villages and seven towns around Saxmundham. Sixty seven said they would have closed, and 300 producers would have been affected.

‘Supermarkets dismantle rural life. The country is becoming saturated and stores are opening where there is no retailing need for them. The impact of a large supermarket in a rural area goes beyond the high street.’

She passionately wants villages and market towns to retain their heart and individuality, and believes the survival of village life depends on local shops and a lively local food economy. ‘The only time I ever go to the supermarket is to buy wine, yoghurt or white bread to feed the chickens – my three whites!’ she laughs.

‘Shops are interdependent: if you lose one, the effect escalates. If there are no small shops, food producers can’t start up, which is a tragedy because innovation comes from individuals not big corporations.’

With no superstore, the area around Glemham has gone against the trend, and the number of food shops and local producers continues to grow. ‘Retaining a variety of shops provides considerably more local jobs than a supermarket,’ she says. Local shops are also the ears and eyes of a community, and often the only personal contact for the elderly.

Fighting the food fight

Lady Cranbrook cuts a striking figure: now in her seventies, she has a mass of grey hair piled on her head and is passionate about the countryside and its people. A Cambridge graduate, she was brought up in Lincolnshire and her parents worked for MI6. She married the Earl of Cranbrook and for more than 20 years has farmed their 850-acre family farm at Great Glemham – with no prior farming experience. In her determined way she learned about it from reading books and talking to neighbouring farmers.

Her husband is away at a poetry festival in Borneo while I am at Glemham. The first few years of their married life were spent in West Malaysia, where Lord Cranbrook, a biologist, lectured in zoology and studied cave bats and swiftlets. ‘We lived in the jungle and had tigers in the garden,’ Caroline reminisces.

I first meet many of Suffolk’s prevalent food producers at Lady Cranbrook’s feast. ‘Any food you can think of is grown here – you name it and Suffolk will produce it!’ Caroline says defiantly. Certainly Suffolk’s list seems endless: pork, beef, game, cheeses (reviving Suffolk cheesemaking traditions), juices, honey, jams, organic produce, pies and smoked meats.

The following day I visit the Wild Meat Company, which sells seasonal wild meats sourced in Suffolk from local shoots. ‘We supply farm shops and local food markets,’ says Paul Denny, one of the joint owners, standing beside a crate of mallards. ‘Big supermarkets screw you down for prices.’

Nearby Ed and Sally Turner breed Red Poll cattle on Alde Valley’s water meadows, naturally hornless cows with striking rusty red fur and native to Suffolk. (The county also has its own sheep and the Suffolk Punch, the world’s oldest breed of working horse.)

‘Supermarkets give you no freedom. They dictate what they will buy, and hence what is produced,’ Ed says. ‘They encourage consumers to buy cheap meat from Brazil rather than local meat.’ He is worried that British farmers will not be able to keep producing meat if supermarkets continue to use companies supplying cheaper meat from abroad.

Alby Clements, also at the feast, can usually be found on Aldeburgh’s shingley beach. Early in the morning he hauls his boat up on skids and then sells his fresh catch daily from outside his beach shack. He is one of the few surviving full-time inshore fishermen working from the beach. ‘Supermarkets don’t pay margins. We would have no business if we didn’t sell on the beach,’ Alby says, dressed in thick waterproofs.

‘Supermarkets buy from trawlers, so their fish spend 12 days on a boat before reaching the shelves, whereas ours is fresh daily,’ he says, sifting out sprat from his traditional drift net as sea gulls swell overhead. ‘I like the personal contact with my customers, telling them about the different fish, and making them aware that some fish you shouldn’t cook immediately; like mackerel, for example, which is better kept for a day.’

Also at the feast is Collete Strachan of MaryBelle and Suffolk Meadow, whose award-winning dairy products are used in many of the dishes. ‘MaryBelle is an example of what can happen to a successful rural enterprise,’ says Caroline. ‘It started small, established a market, expanded and is now sold everywhere.’

All the producers have a story to tell about the benefits of not relying on supermarkets. Salters Family Butchers on Aldeburgh high street sources all its meat from local farms, and still hangs it for several weeks before selling, giving it a chance to mature on the bone, whereas supermarket meat is usually not hung. ‘The art of butchery is disappearing,’ explains owner Richard Emsden. ‘Few young people are learning the skill. How meat is butchered and trimmed affects its flavour.’

High House Fruit Farm, a family business for 50 years, sells everything within a 12-mile radius of the farm. ‘Supermarkets won’t deal with individuals,’ says owner Piers Pool. The farm sells a wide variety of high-quality fruit and juices; apples are its speciality, ranging from James Grieve to Blenheim Orange. ‘Every eighth apple is a “king” apple, where the stalk rises to one side. They taste the same yet supermarkets won’t accept them, which is such a waste. Supermarkets want fruit to follow a template, but nature doesn’t do templates.’

The love of local has caught on in Suffolk, spreading to many of the pubs, hotels and restaurants, which sell locally sourced, home cooked food. ‘Our salad comes in with the dew still on,’ says Clare Bruce-Clayton, owner of Lawson’s Delicatessen in Aldeburgh. ‘We cook everything to order, nothing is prepped and our scrambled eggs are from local chickens,’ adds Paul Thomas, the owner of Farm Café.

Suffolk is full of market towns, many of which have kept their traditional weekly markets – a far cry from a trip to Tesco. Nearby Campsea Ashe is one of them, its market every Monday. ‘Every market town in England used to have its own weekly livestock market, all on different days so drovers could move between markets,’ Caroline explains. ‘Supermarkets are killing these markets, which is sad because they are important for social contact and the exchanging of ideas.’

Campsea Ashe market still has food auctions, although no longer for livestock. In a dark, atmospheric shed, men hold up bunches of pheasants and the auctioneer shouts prices, surrounded by a crowd in tweed and caps. Rabbit feet and vivid orange partridge beaks poke out of numbered slots on antiquated wooden box shelves. ‘Wild rabbit used to be for old women, but since young foodies have been highlighting them on television they are popular again,’ one man jokes. I am surprised to find there is even a vegetable auction. ‘I can buy a bunch of beetroot for 50p, whereas it is £1.50 in a supermarket,’ one man says happily.

The market also has a busy tearoom, all the women serving wear matching pinnies, and people queue up for fresh sausage rolls, scones and steaming milky coffee.

After battling supermarkets, Caroline moved to her next campaign – and won. She helped persuade the Government to change the method of charging for meat hygiene inspection in local abattoirs, helping once more to revive the rural economy. New EU rules on small abattoir inspections resulted in a huge leap in costs, threatening them with closure and consequently longer journeys for the animals. In 2006 she was awarded the OBE for services to the red meat industry, and she and Bob Kennard of the Soil Association were jointly nominated campaigners of the year by Radio 4’s Food Programme.

Old houses such as Glemham were designed to be self-sufficient, and Caroline holds on to this ethos, keen to be productive rather than rely on supermarkets. She feeds homegrown food to her family, as well as to the estate’s residents, and sells the rest to local retailers. The beautiful Georgian house still has an enormous 200-year-old walled kitchen garden, in which are grown the everyday and the exotic. Caroline’s passion is unusual beans, chillis and peppers, heritage varieties collected in Eastern European and Mediterranean countries. She also keeps rare chicken breeds – Buff Cochins, Araucanas and Andalusians – selling her bountiful eggs locally.

Focus on localisation

Caroline’s unflagging campaigning has ensured that she is heavily involved in nearly all rural and food issues of Suffolk, sitting on countless committees. She is a trustee of the Suffolk Punch Trust, President of Suffolk ACRE (Action with Communities in Rural England), vice-president of Suffolk CLA (Country Land & Business Association) and CPRE (Campaign to Protect Rural England), a patron of Tastes of Anglia and board member of East Anglia Food Links. Prince Charles called her ‘the doughtiest fighter for good sense in agriculture’, and she is a founder and president of Aldeburgh’s Food and Drink Festival, regarded as one of the UK’s best.

Her latest role is as chairman of Natural England’s Eastern Region Grazing Forum.

‘I want to halt the trend of farmers leaving livestock production in East Anglia, so we’ve set up an unusual dating agency connecting landowners with animal rearers who need grazing land,’ Caroline smiles. ‘Livestock and land are linked. Grazing animals play a crucial role in maintaining Britain’s pastoral landscape.’ Buying local beef and lamb means helping preserve the Suffolk landscape and wildlife reserves where these animals graze.

‘Livestock are the landscape’s gardeners; without them the land would become a tangled mess,’ Caroline clarifies. Animals can graze on fragmented pieces of land unsuitable for arable farming, or on environmentally sensitive land. ‘Although East Anglia is predominantly arable, it is important we have meat in our local economy.’

She is also currently working on the idea of one central food-distribution hub for East Suffolk. If it succeeds, the distribution of local food will be easier. ‘At the moment some local restaurants go to London to pick up Suffolk produce, which is ridiculous. Many outlets find it difficult to find regular supplies of local food in sufficient quantity for their needs.’ The distribution infrastructure of local markets has almost disappeared, so commercial growers and artisan producers can only supply local markets with difficulty. Caroline thinks interlinked distribution hubs are the future.

Her overriding belief is that food production and distribution need to become localised again. ‘Supermarkets and our present food supply chain, dependent on long-distance sourcing and centralised distribution, are not sustainable. The Government needs to help small-scale producers instead of hindering them,’ she says. ‘Britain needs to build self-reliance in food, because further food and fuel shortages are predicted.’

With climate change, the high price of oil, continuing population increase and a world that consumes more food than it produces, the global food chain has certainly never looked less secure. ‘Long-distance food supplies are becoming more fragile. We import a lot of our food from countries that are running out of water,’ she continues.

Besides having less food miles attached, the benefits of local food are numerous. Food traceability makes it easier to eat safe and wholesome food. ‘It is crucial that people become reconnected to the countryside and understand how food is produced. We have hunted and cooked food for years, but recently people have become separated from food production and knowing where their food comes from,’ Caroline says. ‘And we are no longer connected to the seasons.’

One common argument against local food is that it is more expensive – yet this is untrue. ‘Fresh vegetables and meat bought in local shops or markets are often half the price of supermarkets,’ Caroline says. ‘And if you are on a small budget you can buy inexpensive cuts such as shin or skirt from the local butcher, which you can’t buy in supermarkets.’

Kate Eshelby is a freelance photojournalist

 

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