On 23 March, the night lockdown was announced, Catherine St Germans was on a Zoom call with farmers, policymakers and activists. There was a sense of foreboding, as they became aware that lockdown would have a catastrophic effect on UK farms.
Using nothing more complicated than Google Sheets and WhatsApp, St Germans and a team of volunteers created Farms To Feed Us, a document listing farms by postcode and what they sold. The file could be easily shared, or signed up to by those who had food to sell. The database launched on 25 March, within an hour or so it was on the Guardian’s Covid live blog, and engagement was immediate.
“The response was really revealing as to the state of where we think our food comes from,” says St Germans, who also co-founded the Port Eliot festival. “Many didn’t know where their nearest farm was. Farmers helped each other out, including neighbours’ surplus produce into their deliveries. People started to use the database not only for themselves, but to shop for shielding relatives. One of the things that most surprised me is how many people thought farming was mundane, only done on a large scale, or just done by men.”
That’s changing – with momentum building over the previous decade. According to the Office of National Statistics, in 2018 about 17% of farmers were women, up from 7% in 2007-2008. In higher education courses, women agricultural students now outnumber men almost two to one, making up 64% of the 2017-2018 graduates.
Mary Quicke runs the cheesemaking and farming of Quicke’s in Devon, the 14th generation to do so. She’s thrilled to see more women enter the industry. “When I first came into farming, around 1982, I went to the Oxford farming conference and there were several thousand people there and there were three women,” she remembers. “At one of those early conferences, I remember someone saying ‘Oh your father must be so disappointed that none of your brothers are interested in running the farm.'”
It hadn’t occurred to her that she’d be seen as a second-choice. “I did have to overcome people’s sense that it belittled them to be told what to do by a woman. I had to cajole people, bring them round, but thinking about how you serve the people you work with is sensible anyway.”
With leaders such as president of the National Farmers’ Union Minette Batters (“farming folk think she’s fabulous”), Quicke thinks there are sufficient models to make the industry more receptive to diversity. That being said, she believes many multigenerational family farms remain pretty traditional. For the last five years, Quicke has been the chair of the Devon County Agriculture Association. “There’s a sense that it’s … not unremarkable,” she says thoughtfully, adding that agricultural shows such as theirs are part of the wider community. “When I think of my life’s purpose, it’s that all people be inspired by a connection to food and farming – 90,000 people come to the Devon County Show.”
She and St Germans both hope that, with the recent disruptions to food and supply, the interest in how consumers get their food is harnessed into more direct engagement with farms across the country. “Two months into lockdown, three million people bought veg boxes or direct from farms for the very first time,” St Germans says. “We want that momentum to continue.”
“Our challenge now is how we farm for the future in a way that supports our species being here,” Quicke says. “We’re stewards of our land and must produce and make food choices in a way that creates the kind of planet we want to live on.” HO
‘I was always fascinated by getting things out of the ground’
Grows vegetables and edible flowers at Aweside Farm, East Sussex
Sinead Fenton is on an early lunch break, hiding from the sun. “It’s ridiculously intense, so I think we’re going to call it a day and crack back on in the evening,” she says. Fenton and her partner, Adam Smith, have been putting in beds and getting ahead on groundwork for next year. This year, there will be no commercial crops on the couple’s 4.5-acre plot.
They signed the papers on their farm last November and moved onto the land in March. Around the time they needed to make decisions about how they’d manage their first harvest, lockdown happened. With restaurants and florists – their main clients – out of action for the foreseeable future, they made the decision not to sow seeds but concentrate on opening up the land. “We were going to do it over three or four years, so we’re squeezing three years of work into this year, so we can focus on growing next year,” Fenton says.
She and Smith cut their scythes at Audacious Veg, a 0.1-acre plot in Hainault, at the end of the Central Line between Essex and London. Shortly after volunteering at the allotment in 2017, they heard the project was about to finish: “Naively, with about three weeks’ worth of growing experience, we decided that we’d take it on and get the produce to chefs.”
Smith worked in insurance accounting and while Fenton most recently worked in software and food policy, her background was in geology. “I came at farming from an activist point of view,” she says. “I was always fascinated by getting things out of the ground, but that is a destructive industry. Farming is nicer because I can do something for the system instead of taking everything from it.”
There was a lot of insecurity around the project. Land is contentious, especially in London, and land law is difficult and expensive to negotiate for those with no farming background. “Adam and I are both from cities – I’m from London, he’s from Essex. We’re from low-income families, and we had no access to farms growing up,” Fenton explains. “It’s basically impossible to get on the land, because it’s so expensive, or passed down through generations.”
They got the land for Aweside through the Ecological Land Co-op, which buys fields designated by Defra as only being good for arable crops, then splits them up to create smallholdings. Aweside is neighbours with a veg-box scheme, and waiting for others who’ll transform what once was a 20-acre maize field into a cluster of small farms rich with biodiversity. Now Fenton and Smith have a 150-year lease, and no worries that what they create will be taken away.
It’s not yet a permanent home. Fenton says they’ll be living in a caravan for a few years: “Another part of land law in the UK that makes land inaccessible is that if you want to live on your land you have to go through five years of proving your business is profitable, viable and that there is a functional need for you to live there.” Having livestock is an easy way to pass the test, but because Aweside is a vegan farm, Fenton and Smith need to cultivate and show they use every bit of plot.
It’s daunting but Fenton is excited about having a blank slate to work with. “There’s so much more to food than what supermarkets tell us to eat,” she says, explaining that they’ll grow varieties at risk of extinction, or that aren’t commonly grown in a mass market food system. “Seed diversity and plant genetics are serious issues.”
The three principles the couple work to are: more flowers, more trees, thriving soil. They’re working no-dig, putting compost directly on the ground and letting the soil life mix everything over time. They’re pesticide-free and are counting on the fact that the more diversity they have in the system, especially with a high proportion of flowers to pollinators and insects, the fewer problems they’ll face.
“Socially, economically and environmentally, something needs to change. Things have been done the same way by the same people for a long time,” says Fenton of the farming industry’s need for greater diversity. “I learned to grow on an allotment site where there are lots of different things growing at once. Bringing that approach into sites like this is needed – the industry needs it to keep itself relevant.” HO
‘People tell me I don’t look like a farmer. But what does one look like?’
Shepherd at Plaw Hatch Farm, East Grinstead, Sussex
Gala Bailey-Barker was out with her flock of 80 Lleyn and Romney sheep and her sheepdog, Pip, in the first week of April when she realised that she couldn’t hear anything. Dual carriageways that would normally throb with commuter traffic from 5.30am were empty. The flights that land every two minutes at Gatwick – Plaw Hatch is in the flight path – had been quietened. “It was so silent you could hear the birds,” Bailey-Barker says. “It was extraordinary.”
The life of a shepherd during a global pandemic, it seems, is mostly the same, only much more peaceful than usual. “I often work at Christmas and new year,” she says, “and it was like it was permanently Christmas Day. It was surreal.” Bailey-Barker, 30, is a first-generation shepherd. She studied archaeology at university, before undertaking an apprenticeship at Plaw Hatch. Eight years on, she helps run the 200-acre community farm that skirts the edge of the Ashdown Forest.
Plaw Hatch is a biodynamic farm. “We try to create a self-sustaining system,” she says. “We produce as much of the feed from the animals as we can. Biodynamic farming is regenerative: you’re improving the soil and creating closed loops so you’re not just taking from nature, but trying to keep the fertility in the system.”
Covid-19 has been good for business: customers have been flocking to Plaw Hatch – part of the Fibreshed movement, which connects fashion, textiles and farming – in record numbers. “It’s been massively busy in the farm shop,” says Bailey-Barker. As supermarkets ran out of essentials like bread and eggs during the early weeks of lockdown, consumers went to Plaw Hatch for their fresh produce. “There was a lot of panic buying,” says Bailey-Barker, “which was difficult, because we are limited on stock. We had to keep saying to people: ‘The chickens aren’t going to stop laying eggs because of Covid!'”
The best thing about her job, she says, is the variety: “It changes so much. You’re trying to manage the ecosystem; close the loop. Every decision you make has so many variables.” The worst thing? Trying to prevent blowfly strike, a disease resulting from the invasion of living tissue by blackbottle flies, in her flock of sheep. “The maggots eat the sheep alive,” Barker says. “It is the most disgusting thing you’ve ever seen. It’s like a horror film.” That, and warding off potential dog attacks: in 2019, Bailey- Barker lost 15 pregnant ewes in a single dog attack.
As a woman in a male-dominated field, Bailey-Barker encounters her fair share of ignorance from the public. When she’s out checking the flock with her partner, an architect, people often assume that he’s the farmer. “People say to me: ‘You don’t look like a farmer,'” she says. “But what does a farmer look like? We’re all individual people.” Plaw Hatch is now predominantly operated by women – 75% of its farmers are female – and Bailey-Barker relishes the opportunity to act as a role model. “I love to represent women, because I would have loved to see women farming as a child. It was never presented as a possible career at school.”
Being out with her flock every day, she sees the climate emergency up close. “I’d love four weeks of rain right now,” she says. Barker was pregnant with her daughter during the summer of 2018, when a heatwave led to droughts and wildfires across Europe. “It was 28C, but it felt more like 45C, because I was pregnant,” Barker says. Mitigating the impact of the climate crisis on the farm requires careful and thoughtful planning. “You have to mitigate between the extremely dry, and the extremely wet,” she says. “I’ve been looking at our soil a lot more to see if there is anything we can do to make it more resilient to those extremes.”
It is a busy life, but a happy one. During lambing season in April, she starts work at 5am. The rest of the year, she’s out with the flock by 7am. “You are never not responsible for animals. It’s not a nine-to-five. I’ve been with my flock now for eight years. I have great granddaughters of the sheep I started out with. It’s amazing to have that sort of relationship with animals.” SK
‘We have a roof over our heads – we won’t go mad chasing money’
Halal farmer at Willowbrook Farm, Oxfordshire
“Since the lockdown eased we’ve got so popular on the weekends,” says Ruby Radwan. Willowbrook Farm may be off the beaten track in a small hamlet in Oxfordshire, but it is directly opposite an ancient right of way, rediscovered by people escaping the house for a walk. “We’ve been here for 17 years, but now people are walking across a field to us and having tea. We have a chef in, we’re doing some simple French dishes and it’s working really well.”
Radwan loves welcoming the new faces – her time on Willowbrook hasn’t always been so cheery. Rural life is notoriously tough and neither she nor her husband Lutfi, both originally Londoners, had a background in farming: she taught part-time, both at high school and in holistic therapies; he was a geography academic at Oxford. They wanted to live a more sustainable life but didn’t have the resources to buy an established farm. Instead they found a piece of land, about 43 acres, 10 minutes’ drive from where they lived.
“We had quite a positive view about being in the country with holistic people and lovely farmers but we were naive, or ignorant, of the reality,” she says. They encountered hostility from some people because they weren’t from the area, as well as because of their religion. Also, trying to build on green-belt land brought its own set of problems, as did raising a young family. At first, they were only farming for themselves, but quickly landed a contract for eggs with the local Co-op. “We were so busy; we lived in a caravan; we didn’t have a tractor, just a little Ford Fiesta which did our egg deliveries and our children-to-school deliveries all in one run.”
Not everything worked – a rhubarb-lined path seemed like a creative idea, but once planted, they realised they hadn’t considered irrigation – so they had to plant a more standard vegetable garden, “like normal people”.
“Sometimes we look back and think we’re so stupid, it’s unbelievable. You can’t just cross it out when you make a mistake in growing something, you have to wait a whole season,” Radwan explains. “It took about seven or eight years before we realised we could do this more seriously and make a business of it.”
They reinstated hedgerows, and planted around 5,000 deciduous native trees and 120 traditional slow-growing fruit trees, eventually added lambs and switched from laying birds to chickens for meat – all free-range and high welfare. Lutfi gave up his job, and now their two elder sons also work on the farm, helped out part-time by their partners, as well as having two full-time employees.
Willowbrook is run according to Islamic principles to live in balance with the environment – physical, social, political and economic – and Radwan believes they may have been the first ethical and sustainable halal farm in the UK. They used to have certification from the Soil Association but decided to work outside that system, still maintaining high standards of sustainability, welfare and biodiversity. “We let our customers in to see the farm and be our conscience,” Radwan says. “They’re going to question us – and that keeps us on our toes.”
At first, most of their customers were Muslim, including people who had converted but were still eating with a non-Muslim family, so were looking for turkey, goose or steak: “Things that Muslims weren’t traditionally buying, but they still wanted to make sure that good welfare and memory of God had been observed.”
Increasingly, the Radwans sell to non-Muslim customers, but they don’t supply to wholesale or restaurants – only people they can have direct contact with: “It means we get maximum profit and there’s less waste.”
New customers will find lamb and beef to buy, but not chicken, which has been much in demand since lockdown. “We started to use the word ‘enough’,” Radwan explains. While she admits it was tempting to build more chicken houses and get more birds, they weren’t willing to compromise on welfare, so have only increased their stock by 20 chickens a month. For regular customers they’ve created a scheme that gives them two chickens every four weeks. Anything over goes to the farmers’ markets.
“We have enough – a roof over our heads, food in our tummies – we don’t need to go mad chasing money,” Radwan says, then adds laughing that, despite having 1,400 birds running round, the family hasn’t eaten chicken for more than two months. “The customer comes first – I’m waiting for my roast.” HO
‘I’m hoping this will be seen as quite a cool career… even if it’s not’
Abi Aspen Glencross
Head of grains at Duchess Farms, Hertfordshire
It was, Abi Aspen Glencross was well aware, an odd, even inopportune time to launch a crowdfunding campaign. In June, with the country still locked down, Duchess Farms asked for support to buy dehulling, cleaning and milling equipment. The Hertfordshire farm needed about GBP16,000, and the money would go towards boosting the production of ancient and heritage grains for making flour.
“A lot of crowdfunders have been for charity or ‘please keep our restaurant open’,” says the 28-year-old Glencross, head of grains – or “senior flour nerd” – at Duchess Farms since 2019. “We felt a bit bad, but we lost a lot of our business overnight when all the restaurants closed and we were like: ‘God, we hope we don’t go under.’ It was quite a scary time for everyone.”
Still, if we have learned one thing from Covid-19, when times are hard, British people get baking. Perhaps inspired by countrywide shortages of flour, maybe invigorated by a new interest in left-field, older wheats such as einkorn and emmer, Duchess Farms sprinted to its target. “We’ve just done some ordering of equipment this morning,” says Aspen, when we speak in July. “It’s been a tough time for everyone but it has cascaded into some beautiful things and we’re just so thankful.”
Glencross’s path to farming was circuitous. She studied chemical engineering, but while her classmates were heading off for jobs at ExxonMobil and Procter & Gamble, she was more of “a hippy at heart”. She decided she wanted to learn more about soil and its role in food production. This led her to Blue Hill Stone Barns, Dan Barber’s pioneering farm-to-table restaurant in the Hudson Valley, north of New York. She spent four months working on the farm and in the bakery, receiving a crash course in ancient grains – an obsession of Barber’s. But the moment Glencross knew she herself wanted to farm came in 2016 in a field in Hertfordshire. She was with John Cherry, who was showing her around Weston Park Farms, 2,500 acres of land he maintains with minimal fertiliser use and zero tillage.
“We were walking around the fields of wheat and I just said: ‘Where does all this go? There’s so much of it,'” Glencross says. “And John goes: ‘Oh probably for animal feed. It’s a consistent market, they’ll take it, it’s easy, even if we don’t earn that much money from it.’ And I was like: ‘This is crazy.’ And that was the beginning of me getting on this grain bender because I was like: ‘Why can’t we grow these grains organically and not feed them to animals?’ So I realised I’d have to start a business, because there were not very many people doing that.”
Heritage grains can be harder to produce in vast quantities – einkorn, especially, is “a bitch to harvest” – but they do have advantages over conventional wheats. They typically have deep roots and grow tall, which means they shade out weeds and do not require chemical sprays. The end product is more nutritious and then there’s the taste. Since 2017, Glencross has run a roving supper club called the Sustainable Food Story with Sadhbh Moore, and Duchess Farms has worked closely with bakeries such as E5 Bakehouse in east London and Gail’s, and restaurants including Doug McMaster’s Silo. “Heritage grains are delicious: when you stop growing for yield and you start growing for quality the flavour is insane,” says Glencross.
Learning to farm from scratch has not been straightforward, but you sense that’s a big part of the appeal for Glencross. “There’s all these decisions the farmer makes throughout the year and why he sprays and why he doesn’t,” she says. “You realise that most people get up, sit at a computer all day and if they press the wrong button, they just delete it. When you’re a farmer, you plant at the wrong time of year and tomorrow it washes away your whole crop.”
Glencross acknowledges that it is almost unprecedented for women to run arable farms. She struggles to name a single other example in the UK. She also notes wryly that men dominate all the farming conferences, saying: “They have a wife but it’s always the men who have written the book and given the presentation.”
With more role models, Glencross hopes things will change. “I’m not cool in any way, but I’m a reasonably young lady,” she says, laughing. “And so when people say: ‘What do you do? Oh, you’re a farmer. Maybe I could do that …’ So I’m hoping that it might become seen as quite a desirable, almost cool career.” A pause: “Even if it’s very much not cool.” TL