A Bedfordshire grower and artisan food producer is holding a special farm walk to thank local people for their support during the coronavirus pandemic.
An influx of visitors to the countryside during the Covid lockdown led to more people appreciating where their food comes, says Whizz Middleton, of TC Shaw & Sons, Barton Hill Farm, Lilley, near Luton.
“Many more people visited the countryside during lockdown – and it was great to see such great support for farming – but many of those people were also oblivious that what they eat is actually what we are growing.”
The farm is home to Mrs Middleton’s award-winning cold-pressed rapeseed oil – produced from the highest quality rapeseed. It also grows Gallant wheat which makes plain natural white stoneground flour, ground using waterpower at a local mill.
“We’ve had a lot of support – and I have friends who have launched new businesses – from little coffee shops popping up in farm buildings to a pretty big farm shop which has all happened in the last year,
Mrs Middleton started her rapeseed oil business in 2012 – driven by a desire to add value and generate extra income from oilseed rape, but also by a desire to show people how food is produced and the dedication that goes into making it.
“I love the link between food and farming. It’s so basic but important to me – that you have a field field, you plant seeds, they grow and then you can be eating them. That’s where my whole business started.
“We were so amazed that people didn’t know where their food came from. That’s why we’ve got on our bottles the grid reference and the field name of where the seed came from to produce the oil in that bottle.
“It means more to the customer when they know where it’s come from. They can look at it on a map and find the exact location. We are also putting signs up telling people what we are growing in each field and this is what it makes.”
For children, farming can form an important part of their education, says Mrs Middleton, who took the farm tractor to her local school to help teach the children about science, technology, engineering and mathematics during STEM week.
“We are able to teach them that the fields they can see from the playground is where the tractor works – and where their food comes. We took a box of Weetabix and a bottle of rapeseed oil to show them and they were fascinated.
Due to be held in July, the farm walk will be an opportunity for older children and families to make a similar voyage of discovery. “Some local people live just a quarter of a mile from the farm – yet they’ve never been up here.
“We’d like to show them what we do – we have a really well established stewardship scheme on the farm and I think it’s important that people realise farmers really do look after the countryside.
“We do some voluntary bits as well – we have loads of margins and wild flowers because we’re at the north end of the Chilterns. We’ve got the chalk downland, native grassland, wild bird seed mixes and legume clover mixes too.
Since starting her business with a natural rapeseed oil, Mrs Middleton has extended the range to include flavoured oils, mayonnaises and salad dressings – a collaboration with chef Phil Fanning, of the Paris House restaurant in Woburn.
The flour is hand-milled by Ray Kilby at Stotfold watermill. “The range has grown gradually and we’re hoping to develop some exciting new products too. And now the children are a bit older I can do the farming and the oil – it’s a good balance.”
Cabbage stem flea beetle and pigeons continue to be major challenges. The aim is to get rape in the ground early to combat the problem, direct drilling a mix of hybrid and conventional varieties into wheat stubble soon after harvest.
We haven’t actually lost any crop but we have had quite significant damage. The pigeons are an absolute pain because we have a lot of woodland and the birds drop straight out of the woods into the crop.
Other crops on the farm include spring and winter barley, beans and oats for the first time in 25-30 years.
As well developing new products, the plan is to see them sold in more places. “We are looking to go a bit further afield. We sell a lot down in Cornwall because that’s where my sister lives and we started the company together originally.
“We’ve got a distribution company down there who sell a lot to restaurants and it is so good to see that they are starting to open up again after lockdown. We also sell some to the Luton Hoo Hotel, which is a stunning place.
“There’s a real sense of excitement because that side of things completely dried up for a whole year and now it is starting to tick again. We love doing collaborations and it’s great when you are able to work with fellow food producers.”
Lockdown meant a different way of doing things, adds Mrs Middleton. “I think people realised it was safer to shop locally – we even set up a click and collect at the front door, which was something I didn’t think I would ever do.
“We got a little card machine and people were more than happy to come here to buy their oil, salad dressings, mayonnaise and flour because they didn’t have to go to the supermarket – we met some fantastic people.”
“We were very lucky – the farm didn’t stop obviously and we were able to carry on. It was very busy and the farm walk in July is a way of saying thank you to people for continuing to support us.”