There are plenty of small farms doing innovative things

I used to think American farms were all wall-to-wall steers, auto-fed with corn-slush and antibiotics, or hectare upon hectare of GM maize.

So what a surprise to hear the famous Joe Salatin of Polyface farm talking about his highly successful and profitable sustainable farm in the Shenedoah valley. The family produce beef, lamb, pork, rabbit, chickens, honey, salad crops, vegetables and winter feed.

They mob-graze the fields, use their own timber to make movable hen houses, the pigs farrow in groups and suckle each other’s piglets and the public can wander where they like. Joe says they took over exhausted land and have gradually healed it by sustainable systems. They don’t use fertilizers or pesticides. They sell locally, direct to the public.

Challenges for Britain

There are plenty of small farmers in the UK doing interesting, innovative things and making, if not a fortune, at least a decent living. They talk of the satisfaction they get from enthusiastic customers, from meeting like-minded entrepreneurial young people. Doing the right thing for livestock, for the countryside, for the community and for their families, is hugely motivating. 

So why are so few young people moving into agriculture? I suspect because farming isn’t easy. Driving massive machines by yourself for hours on end over mono-culture acres can be mentally tough. And then there’s the regulation and bureaucracy, the power of the supermarkets, and the fear of disappearing subsidies post-Brexit.

But I smell a sea-change? The rise of food festivals, farmers’ markets and food start-ups are indications that the public are increasingly interested in good food that hasn’t racked up hundreds of food miles.

We like shopping where we can meet the producer; find out how he or she raises livestock or produces goods; where we can taste the wares; talk to other shoppers, and end up trusting the farmer. Small farms, especially if they supply restaurants, local shops and the direct shopper, can play a huge role in inspiring confidence in our food.

So what next?

But how to create more demand from the public for really good produce. I long for the good-food culture to spread to everybody in society. I dream of the day when everyone cares where their food comes from, and demands that it is honest, wholesome and tastes great.

It is beginning to happen, and it’s very exciting. This year the Eviivo Tastiest Breakfast Award was rated on how local, how sustainable and how fresh B&B’s ingredients were, not just on how well they were cooked.

I’d rather eat great quality meat once a week than factory-farmed every day, and if it’s the cheaper cuts, all the better. There’s nothing to beat a slow-cooked brisket or an Irish stew made from scrag end.

  • Prue Leith CBE has been a restaurateur, caterer, television presenter/broadcaster, journalist, cookery writer and novelist.