Living in a city, it can be hard to relate to where your food comes from, with a majority of produce in supermarkets having limited provenance information. With research suggesting that within a decade the UK will need to import half of its food, the idea of eating locally can seem challenging. With a population of just under half a million, Bristol is the 8th largest city in the UK and while it has a strong reputation when it comes to food, not many people know what is produced in the fields and farms surrounding it. The pioneering Who Feeds Bristol report published by sustainable food systems planner Joy Carey in 2011, delved into local and regional production, finding that Bristol could provide the dairy and meat it needs from within a 50 mile radius, but for other produce, it was necessary to look further afield. So why is this, and what are the best examples of producers in and around the city?
The rolling hills and damper conditions caused by the oceanic climate in the area means that raising livestock takes up a large part of the land around Bristol, with over 60% of land in the South West being used for livestock. However, 90% of the meat produced is sold straight to supermarkets and wholesalers, destined for national rather than local markets, so what local meat does make it into the city?
Within the city itself, several farms are rearing small numbers of animals for meat. St Werburgh’s City Farm, Lawrence Weston Community Farm, Windmill Hill City Farm and Elm Tree Farm all sell meat from the animals they raise, and Street Goat sells meat from the male offspring of their micro-dairy operation. Around the city, there are several small producers who do farm gate sales, although these can be difficult to locate and often operate through local or word of mouth promotion. Another alternative for those willing to leave the city to find produce is to head to a farm shop, such as Brockley Stores or Manor Farm.
Further afield, there are a few larger operations selling directly to customers. Model Farm near Ross on Wye raises pasture-reared organic beef and lamb, practicing rotational grazing techniques that have restored the biodiversity and increased soil quality on a 500-acre estate. “On grass fields where there was nothing 12 years ago, [fields] now have wildflowers, and the wildflowers bring the bugs, and the bugs the birds,” the farmer Simon Cutter explains. “We’re managing it as a whole year-round, sustainable system.” As well as running a butchers and farm shop on their farm, they sell to consumers in Bristol through the Easton Food Assembly and the Real Economy. Another example is The Story Organic in the Chew Valley who sell through an organic meat box model, as well as retailing direct to restaurants and through the fresh-range online shop.
When it comes to restaurants and retailers, many opt to use a butcher to provide the variety and quantity of cuts required. Powells of Olveston are one of the main butchers in the city who supply local meat to restaurants and caterers, sourcing from a carefully selected group of local farmers and slaughterhouses. “It’s important to keep money in the local area, supporting other local and small business,” director Scott Edmonds points out. “It’s also important because you know where the product has come from, where it was reared, where it was slaughtered, where it was dry aged and where it was butchered. It’s a supply chain with total clarity.”
With land suitable for raising animals, it’s not surprising that the dairy industry in the South West is strong, with more than 5500 dairy farms producing around 37% of England’s milk. The UK’s largest organic dairy brand, Yeo Valley, are based just 11 miles south of Bristol. They use milk from their own herd of 400 Friesians as well as purchasing milk through the Organic Milk Suppliers Cooperative (OMSCO)that they helped found in 1994, supplying milk, butter and yoghurt to Bristol as well as nationally. Several smaller dairy producers supply direct to retail outlets and restaurants, including Bruton Dairy, Ivy House Dairy and Jess’s Ladies.
With falling prices in the dairy industry, more than half the dairy farms in the South West have closed between 2002 and 2016. Supporting local farms has never seemed more vital, but how have farms in the area adapted? “For us, cheese making is all about farming – you have to be an entrepreneur to survive!” Hugh Padfield from Park Farm, points out. After the reforms in the 1980’s that allowed farmers to retain some of the milk they produced, his father tried his hand at artisan cheese making and now the Bath Soft Cheese Company uses just over half the milk produced on the farm, around 550,000 litres a year, for making cheese. Looking around, there’s lots of other examples of creative dairy businesses in the region: Brown Cow Organics yoghurt, Marshfield Farm and Chews Moos ice cream, and a number of other farm-based cheesemakers such as Trethowan’s Dairy and Godminster.
Fruit and Vegetables
With just 6% of Great Britain’s overall vegetable production coming from the South West and many larger producers specialising in roots and brassicas, the variety and volume of produce grown locally is limited. The Bristol Fruit Market in St Philips is the main purchasing option for most businesses and retailers, but local and organic producers are not particularly well represented and a lot of produce is imported from elsewhere in the UK or abroad. So, what are the success stories of local vegetable production?
A growing number of farms have opted to supply directly to customers, such as Leigh Court Farm, Sims Hill Shared Harvest, The Community Farm and Plowright Organic. Plowright Organic sells produce from their on-farm shop, through a veg box scheme averaging around 220 boxes a week, and wholesale to local community shops and other farms to help support their box schemes. The most unusual thing about Plowright though is that their boxes are 100% farm grown for nine months of the year – impressive when compared to most operations that will buy in heavily during winter and spring. Adam Keeves, one of the growers, details that, “It’s a 90-acre organic holding rented from the council on a seven year rolling tenancy. We currently crop on about 35 acres out of the 90, and the rest is either permanent pasture, woodland, hedgerows and leys.” They are mechanised, but as Adam describes; “We do use tractors and machinery, but if you do it at the right time you can make it work; you can build soil health, soil structure, increase worm count…”
Cereals, grains and bread
Cereals is an area where Bristol is a significant importer from other regions and abroad. Growing cereals in the South West is a challenge; the climate is generally too damp and cool for growing the quality of wheat required for bread making, so around 70% of the cereals grown in the region are destined for animal feed.
One farm who have chosen to look at what does grow well in the climate are Sharpham Park, located down near Glastonbury. After his sister was diagnosed with cancer, Roger Saul began looking for a gentle but nourishing alternative to wheat. “I found that spelt was an amazingly healthy grain with a lovely nutty taste,” he explains. “It’s high in fibre with great slow release energy, high in protein and found to be good for people with a wheat intolerance. On our journey, we found it had been grown for some 4,000 years in the area that we live.” They’ve created such a demand for British grown spelt, that as well as growing it on approximately 100 acres of their land, they work with several farmers around the country to grow on another 600 or so acres, all processed through their dedicated spelt stone mill on site.
For cereals, a valuable resource is the local mills in the region, including the two operated by Shipton Mill. “We’re essentially a thousand years old; we’re mentioned in the Doomsday book!” marketing manager Tom Russell points out, talking about their historic Tetbury site, restored in the 1970s. With well over a hundred different flours produced by their mills, many of which are organic, they offer 100% British flour as well as a range of heritage varieties like Emmer and Einkorn. “The perception is that you have to have strong flour with a high protein level to make good bread,” Tom explains. “But if you have the magic ingredient, called time, you can make really good bread with any flour.”
It is obvious that a lot of food is produced around Bristol, and with 38% of organic producers located in the South West, perhaps the bigger challenge is how we, as city residents, access this locally produced food.
This is the first article in a series of three on Eating Local in Bristol. The next article will look at the different routes producers are taking to get this produce onto the plates of consumers in the city.