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Surrey farmers, rural life and local produce

PUBLISHED: 12:36 21 May 2013 | UPDATED: 12:29 10 June 2014

There were once more cows per acre of grass in Surrey than anywhere else in the world

There were once more cows per acre of grass in Surrey than anywhere else in the world

Archant

As a result of the horse meat scandal in supermarkets, the spotlight is once again focused on the provenance and traceability of our food. Rural expert Jane Garrett looks back at the history of farming in Surrey and asks what the future holds for our county's farmers

Food security was probably the key factor that kick-started farming; the eureka moment several thousand years ago when hunter gatherers decided to grow the plants they liked in a controlled space, rather than randomly forage for them across dangerous territory.

Surrey’s landscape reflects the changes made by every farmer since the Ice Age: the chalk downs grazed bare by centuries of sheep, the patchwork quilt of fields, the copses of thousands of old small mixed farms, the acres of yellow rape flowers and now the rows of neatly pruned vines.

Despite urbanisation and the spread of the commuter belt, farming is still vital to Surrey. It creates and protects the landscape. And yes – in Surrey – it still proudly produces food for the table.

Buying local not only buys peace of mind but also supports the very people who preserve and enhance our landscape, the farmers. They are a rare breed themselves though these days.

Tony Poulsom, whose family ran dairy herds along the Hog’s Back, recalls 400 people employed in agriculture on the northern side of the downs alone between Guildford and Farnham. “That was in the 1950s, now there is maybe one,” he says. “When I left college, I was told there were more cows per acre of grass in Surrey than anywhere else in the world. It is incredible to look back and think of it.”

Nose to tail

There were labour intensive dairy farms nose to tail from Farnham to Guildford to Dorking but the wage bills meant the bubble had to eventually burst. Tony Poulsom’s land is now used to grow crops.

The Hampton Estate, on the other side of the Hog’s Back at Puttenham, has changed from several intensive dairy herds to one relaxed herd of Sussex beef cattle, where the calves graze with their mothers. The urgency of daily milking has given way to sociable beef box collection days, where families can pick up meat for their freezer and enjoy a glass of wine and a tasting of the latest pies.

“We are delighted that so many local people can now buy our naturally reared beef direct from Hampton Estate Farms,” says Bridget Biddell, who runs the estate with her husband, Bill. “It’s a pleasure to meet and greet our customers on a monthly basis; a far cry from the daily milk collection in a bulk milk tanker lorry heading off to a number of different destinations. And we are thrilled to have seen a good increase in customer numbers since the horse meat scandal, endorsing our ethos of rearing all our animals on the farm from calving to carving.”

Going local

You are unlikely to find much local food in the supermarket, however, although some like Waitrose are heading down that route. At the moment, it takes a bit of effort, forethought and spare freezer capacity to put Surrey fare on the table, but buying local meat is perfectly possible, and hugely worthwhile.

A good place to start is the local farmers’ market and farm shops. Surrey also has some great traditional butchers who know which farms their meat comes from. At the extreme end of the trace-ability spectrum are F Conisbee & Sons, butchers in East Horsley for over 230 years, and their business plan is hard to beat. Brothers James and Stephen are the ninth generation in the business and the two shops are almost entirely self-sufficient in beef, lamb and turkeys, bred and grown by them on the family farm.

Newer on the scene but just as passionate about the quality of their meat is the Butcher’s Hall and Country Grocer at The Parrot pub in Forest Green, which also has its own home farm supplying beef, lamb, pork and eggs. Poultry comes from Etherley Farm just up the road and neighbouring farms supplement with different breeds of cattle and sheep. The great thing here is that everything is clearly marked with the name of the farm. There is pride in provenance.

The Stovold family at Shackleford, one of the oldest farming dynasties in Surrey, now combines big business with direct sales to the consumer. Angus Stovold has developed his Aberdeen Angus herd primarily as prize-winning pedigree breeding stock to sell on to farmers throughout the world. But you can still often find him behind the stall in Guildford Farmers’ Market on the first Tuesday of the month selling packs of steak and mince.

“All of our cattle are born on the farm and raised on the farm and people can walk past and see them. It’s in your face,” he says. “People who live in west Surrey are lucky to see nice cattle and they buy from us at the farmers’ market and know the animal has travelled no further than 17 miles from birth to market stall.

“When people buy from Romania or Germany or Spain in order to get cheap meat, it is always likely that it is going to go wrong.

“We sell direct to the public because we like to keep a local market. Our meat is also sold at Wakelings the Butchers in Farncombe, one of the few butcher’s that still buys from local farms and you can see our cattle in the show rings at Surrey County Show every year.”

Manor Farm, Wotton is another that manages to combine commercial and niche elements. Arable crops and beef animals are sold into the market but a small pedigree herd of Belted Galloway cattle produces beef for a box scheme run by owner Paula Matthews direct from the farm. The demand for this wonderful beef outstrips supply and there is usually a waiting list as the herd is being built up slowly to maintain quality.

Changing times

Farming is about adapting to climate pressures and politics, demand and fashion. From wool to hops to milk to oilseed rape to branded hessian bags full of five star beef, the products of our farms respond to what the market and the consumer wants to buy.

The horse meat scandal has once again shown the importance of provenance and traceability. It is clear that the longer and more complicated the journey of food from field to fork, the more vulnerable it is to contamination, abuse, crime or fraud. The solution has to be to buy food that is as fresh, and as locally produced, as possible. We need to trust that the retailer is confident about his suppliers. Tracing the farm and ultimately the specific animal, is, in theory at least, achievable within the UK.

If that translates into an upsurge in demand for Surrey produce, that will not only put wonderful locally grown food on the table but ensure the future of farming in Surrey and the conservation of this magical rural landscape.

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