Mark and Heather Thorogood’s organic shop is run out of the pantry at the side of their house in Lincolnshire. It’s dark and cool inside, and although at this time of year it’s no cornucopia, Mark’s still got the basics for sale – three different types of potato, carrots, leeks, cauliflowers, and such. He’s bang out of onions, mind, though he even goes so far as to see if he’s got any of his own I can have (he’s all out too). But what he has got plenty of is fantastic organic pork. Sausages – regular pork ones and the traditional Lincolnshire (flavoured with sage), loin, shoulder and leg cuts, and a sublime looking piece of belly pork, with the ribs still on.I’m in the area for a self-catering weekend away with my sister, brother-in-law and two nieces. And rather than do the shopping at the Sleaford branch of Sainsbury’s, I thought I’d take the time to find some local produce. I found Priory Free Range foods via bigbarn.co.uk, which lets you find local producers near any UK postcode. Mark’s also got a good website, with video and images. This is because his other job is as a web developer, but more on that later. In the meantime, he’s offered to show me around. We leave Mark’s house and walk over to his small-holding, which must be all of ten metres from his shop. It’s about the size of two football pitches, not huge, surrounded by large hedgerows planted by Heather’s grandfather years ago.
One by one we meet the animals, First up, Luther the Wiltshire stud ram, who’s got another year left of ‘work’, as well as a couple of ewes. Mark explains: “All our lamb was sold in a day. We only had a handful of animals and we sold the lot. People were buying half an animal at a time, it’s really that good. We kept one leg back for ourselves, which we saved for some foodie friends.” Next to Lothario Luther’s pen is the first of three large old mobile homes, which, à la Jimmy’s Farm, have been converted into chicken coops.
”We did build a chicken coop at first, but it came out at around £500 for the materials, then you’ve got to build it. I can get one of these for £200 and they’re ready to go, and the chickens love them”. Mark has two breeds of chicken on his land, the Maran Noire and Black Rocks on his farm. The Black Rock in particular, according to this site is apparently ‘the ideal free-range layer. It loves the outside’. (You’d think every breed of chicken would love the free-range life, given the chance?)
Mark’s got his chickens in groups of around fifty. This, he explains, means they can form a social group where everyone knows their place and the animals don’t get confused. It’s the opposite of a pecking order, because you don’t want birds pecking each other, which is what happens if they’re grouped in large numbers. As we’re walking on, a chicken darts out of the hedgerow, “One’s escaped!” I say. “It’s not one of mine,” says Mark. “I call this chicken Foxy Lady. She’s actually escaped from a larger, more industrial chicken farm about half a mile up the road. Normally the foxes would have had her in a day or two, but some how she’s surviving. I should do something about her as I’d rather she didn’t get too near mine, but I can’t bring myself to.” Mark hasn’t had to deal with any fox intrusions yet, and so doesn’t shoot or try to trap them. But he does dread the day one gets into his coop and action has to be taken, so I point out that most foxes have probably moved to the city to pull apart the remains of KFC chickens. In a way, I imagine having your chickens in lots of small groups, surrounded by other larger animals, might offer a natural form of protection, especially when it’s Luther the Ram and Boris the Welsh Boar, who we meet next…
He looks like his namesake Boris Johnson, with his blond hair and robust inquisitive attitude – an approach that sees him take a shine to my K-Swiss trainers, which he promptly tries to eat. My nieces (Hannah, aged 4 and Jessie, aged 2) and brother-in-law Vinny who’ve accompanied me on the trip take a closer look before we move on to his progeny. (see top image)
“We’ve not lost one this year,” Mark points out. “Sometimes the mother can roll over one, or we might have a runt, but this year we’ve got them all.” The sow looks a picture of contentment, wallowing in the mud under the broad Lincolnshire sky while the piglets dare to come near the electrified wire to investigate my nieces. Mark leaves his piglets for around 10 weeks, while in industrial pig production it can be as little as 3.5 weeks. This all adds cost, mind. As a sausage maker said to me at the Abergavenny food festival last year, “That pig’s had two years of the best room and board imaginable at my expense. Now that’s reflected in the taste, mind, but also in the price.” (To read about the dark side, i.e. mainstream pig rearing, see Piggles.org.uk)
The visit winds up and we start walking back to the shop, finally passing a vegetable plot about the size of two tennis courts where Mark grows all his veg. “We’ve just had the sprouting broccoli up as the weather’s been so good,” he says. “Ooh, can I have some?” I ask. “Sorry, it’s all gone,” says Mark. We stop to talk about his attitude to farming, and Mark points to the hawthorn hedgerows that surround his land, planted by Heather’s grandfather. “This is important. Look at this, we’ve got weeds and bluebells and lady birds.”
We look across to his neighbour, George Adams’ pork processing plants. Now I’ve not (knowingly) tried any of Mr Adams’ pork products so I can’t comment on their taste, but their operation seems a world away from Mark’s despite being just next door. According to JSR Genetics they were instrumental in the development of the Adams Titan, bred ‘to improve carcass yield in the most expensive cuts’. And that they’re ‘a vertically-integrated business’? Futhermore, according to thepigsty.com Sainsbury’s have chosen this unique genotype for their ‘Taste the Difference’ pork range, specially selected for its exceptional meat-eating quality and tenderness’.And that is what us city folk have demanded, right? We say we want taste but we don’t want fat, we want it when we want it, and we want it at a rock-bottom price. JSR also produce Prosperm, which I suppose is like Wellman supplements for boars. I’m not saying they’re in any way bad; it’s just that these two neighbours show the different sides to modern food production.I’m not trying to paint a romantic picture here of part-time small-holdings.
I fully realise that the countryside is a working place, not a picture postcard, and that it produces food for the massive population of this country in a process that has been ‘industrialised’ for well over a 100 years now and that, in short, keeps us from starving. Though for how long remains to be seen…Mark tells me how a previous article about them had the headline ‘Back to the good life’. “It’s anything but that – it’s bloody hard work,” says Mark. But as we talk about the future we agree that perhaps “a change is gonna come.” Mark talks about the rising cost of fuel, meaning that flying goods around may become uneconomical, but I think it’ll also become unethical. Local is the new organic. Look at this image of a ‘local’ shelf in a massive 24-hour ASDA in Colchester, and that was what organic food was like ten years ago.But more than that I think set-ups like Mark’s are like the web 2.0 of food – small, hard-working teams, multi-skilled, agile, self-promoting, good products, and word-of-mouth distribution. By using the internet they allow for perfect provenance, putting the owner of the fork in direct touch with the owner of the farm. http://www.snoutandtrotter.co.uk is another similar operation in Devon.
We’re one of the most tech-savvy nations in the world, thinking nothing of getting goods online. 11.5 million people used ebay.co.uk in January 2006, so why does “I ordered it off the net” apply to nearly everything except independently produced food? Because the producers are not set up for it and the ones that are are hard to find. I recorded an interview with Jim Twine, communications director for the Soil Association at the International Food Expo a few months ago. He was talking about how to maintain the integrity of their accreditation and how the SA can help small farmers, and having seen a part-time small-holding at the coal-face, I think more should be done to support people like this. I ask Mark about grants and development loans. “It’s the paper work, I’ve just not got the time,” he replies.
We cross the lane back to Mark’s shop. He apologises for the rushed tour, but he has to get back to man the shop as Heather has to go out and make deliveries. “We’ve started supplying The Queen’s Head, which is the best restaurant for miles around.” Mark’s keen to stress that he wants to sell his produce locally first rather than send it all down to London. “Sadly, most restaurants around here are only interested in price. We’re competing with the likes of Dutch pork, for example, and few people seem care about where it’s come from which is a shame.” We go on to talk about how so few restaurants fully promote their local credentials. And Lincolnshire isn’t the most affluent county in England. “If we were a 100 miles further south certain things would be much easier,” says Mark. He’s trying to change that through word of mouth, who he supplies, and his website.Back in the shop I make some purchases. And here’s the thing. Back in London, before writing this, I went to Sainsbury’s at Upper Norwood and tried to match what I bought at Priory Free Range foods.
So that’s meat, potatoes, and two veg, plus sausages and eggs, enough for five/six people for £23.81. All organic, and at a price that’s competitive with Sainsbury’s. On the whole, taking into account such things as carbon footprint, holistic attitude, regional variation and ‘supporting local business’, I think Priory Free Range Foods does very well against a leading supermarket. And Mark even helped me carry the bags to the car – you can’t say that of your average “Do you want help packing?” till staff, can you?
Back at the holiday home, the pork went in the Aga. Agas – you either love them or you hate them. I think trying to cook on one is like driving a steam train. It’s all great-looking, with enamel, smoke and cast iron, very rural farmhouse, but it’s just not for me. Having said that, the exceptions that proves the rule are fried eggs done on bake-o-glide and the jacket potatoes I got which came out like shrunken leathery pygmy heads, just how I like ‘em.The crackling on the pork was fantastic, all blistered up like a first-degree burns victim (what!?), so that the top-most piece nearly caught in the furnace that was the Aga. Underneath was a sublime layer of fat, and then the tasty meat. I would have liked to have cooked it slower for longer to render out some more of the fat. I don’t think I did it justice battling with the guesstimates of the roasting oven vs. the simmering oven, however, or the guidelines set out in the Aga cookbook that came with the place.
Carrots. These tasted like regular carrots, to be honest, but perhaps a little sweeter. There was a world of difference in the leeks, however. These you could tell were part of the proud onion family: they had a zingy bite with a slight peppery taste, coupled with a bright green colour. And none of that squeakiness on the tooth you can sometimes get with leeks.The potatoes were, again, excellent. I love spuds when they’re done so they’re only just about holding together, letting you break them apart by simply pushing them against the roof of your mouth with your tongue – yum.
I hope there’s a future in this country for this sort of enterprise. I think we owe it to ourselves (and the planet) to try to augment our shopping with at least a few items from people like Mark – and I think the internet can help there. I hope also that there’s a viable workable future for the countryside. Channel 4 is screening Molly Dineen’s ‘Lie of the Land’ next week (which looks very similar to a BBC Four show from 2005). The blurb says ‘Farming has sculpted our rural landscape. But in recent years the farming industry has been decimated by disease, development, legislation and the power of the supermarket chains. I’d like to think that people like Mark prove that there’s a potentially bright future for the British countryside.