Full Circle Farming on Dartmoor, Devon
PUBLISHED: 22:52 11 December 2009 | UPDATED: 14:51 20 February 2013
Only 15% of the red meat produced on Dartmoor, is consumed within a 30-mile radius of the moor. One Widecombe business, prompted by the Government's call for farmers to diversify, has developed a cooperative approach with neighbouring farmers aimed..
When Mr Blair donned his wellies and visited a small selection of Westcountry farms during his first term in office, he advised that to survive in his 21st-century Britain, farmers would have to diversify or die. A bitter pill for many to swallow. But looking on the positive side, some creative thinking has subsequently emerged, heralding a new era of opportunity for farmers and small food and drink providers to develop niche markets for themselves and add value to their produce.
Fuelled more recently by a genuine hunger for fully traceable, local and ethically produced food and drink, an increasingly large percentage of the population are now questioning where their food is coming from.
Finding a new way forward without the subsidy support systems of the past has resulted in a raft of exciting new initiatives. Many of these have been borne out of co-operation between farmers and food producers. Collaboration has also been encouraged with a wide variety of public and private sector organisations, who see the spin-off benefits back to rural communities. Partnerships between farming and tourism are also being forged, with each recognising the importance of the other. There is none more so than the challenging farming environment of Dartmoor National Park.
Grazing the high moorland regions of Dartmoor requires the most 'extensive' of farming methods, where the slower maturity of animals is tasted in the finished flavour. Sadly, only 15% of the red meat produced on Dartmoor is consumed within a 50km radius of the moor. To find out more about what is being done to rectify this, I visited Holwell Farm, near Widecombe-in-the-Moor.
Some of you will have followed the story of Holwell's arrival into the 21st century with West Country Television's 'Forgotten Farm', which charted the ambitious plans of Sebastian and Philippa Hughes who set out to resurrect this rundown farmstead into a viable and thriving business.
The arrival of the first animals back to the farm - 20 rare-breed, pedigree saddleback sows and one well-equipped boar - coincided with an army of builders, dry-stone wallers and fencers who were kept fully employed with their respective roles for the next six months. By this time the pig herd had expanded to 200 and four redundant barns were transformed into self-catering cottages.
Filling the cottages all year round proved easier than finding a route to market for the pigs, but both Sebastian and Philippa quickly realised how important it was to farm Holwell, not least to deliver the landscape that the cottage guests were coming to appreciate.
By working closely with other neighbouring farmers, a co-operative approach that identified strengths and weaknesses enabled the Hughes to develop a direct route for their pork as well as other farmers' beef and lamb that was also bred and fed on Dartmoor.
Appropriately named Tor to Tor, they adopted a convenience-led approach by starting an old-fashioned door-to-door delivery service that featured only traceable meat from Dartmoor.
Demand for more flexibility in the range of produce they sold and a desire to hang their meat properly led to the decision to open up a butchery at the farm itself.
With a full-time butcher, Tor to Tor can now boast a range of ten sausage flavours, all handmade, featuring pork and onion, lamb and mint, beef and tomato and a Dartmoor game sausage made with seasonal game such as venison and pheasant.
Tim, the butcher, has also established his Holwell dry-cured bacon as the one to buy for his customers, who travel far and wide specially to buy it at the monthly Widecombe Village Market - it's usually all gone within the first hour!
Second-generation farmers from Widecombe, the Mortimore family believe they have unique selling points: "Our cows suckle their calves until they are at least eight months old, when they are weaned and fed on home-grown forage. No purchased feed is given to our cattle - their lifetime diet is grown in the Widecombe Valley. Our beef has been produced in the caring and natural way it deserves."
One of Tor to Tor's principal lamb producers is Bowden Farm at Scorriton, where the Ashford family have farmed for over 50 years: "Our breeding flock are predominantly Scotch Blackface ewes, traditionally a mountain breed. They're slow maturing, yet sufficiently hardy to withstand Dartmoor's inclement weather and ideally equipped to forage the abundant rough grazing on offer. The ewes are mated to either Scotch Blackface rams, to produce flock replacements, or to Texel rams to produce the ideal 'finished' lamb, with minimal fat.
Holwell's outdoor pigs love nothing more than truffling on a wide variety of vegetation and chasing each other round the farm causing havoc and mess wherever their insatiable snouts take them. "The Saddleback has always been raised for its excellent pork and bacon," says Philippa. "The piglets are weaned around 12 weeks and forage on a natural diet. The meat produced has a distinctive, rich flavour and as the only part of a pig you don't use is the squeak, there's a wide selection of products available - we have even converted hardened vegetarians back to our bacon and sausages because they can see our pigs have a happy life and our meat is so much healthier for them."
There is also the added satisfaction of knowing that by consuming Dartmoor meat, customers are contributing to the survival of a precious environment and preserving native breeds of animals that could otherwise die out.
Beyond the farm, Tor to Tor satisfies a varied clientbase, from individual householders to hotels and restaurants, including the sister operation to Holwell - Holne Chase Hotel. Here Philippa and Sebastian have long championed locally sourced, seasonal produce and now they can supply all their own meat and boast that it has travelled just six food miles.
Tor to Tor's striking delivery van also makes weekly rounds to businesses in Exeter and Plymouth, where it's convenient for employees to buy from their place of work. The van itself is an example of public sector support for rural initiatives via the Dartmoor National Park's Sustainable Development Fund.
A meatbox scheme with a difference has also recently been launched via their website, which allows the buyer to select the items rather than receive a box containing cuts of meat that may not be suitable for the size of family it's destined
When I left the farm, Philippa handed me a leg of Dartmoor Heather Lamb, the first batch of one of the moor's most prized products - lamb that has matured in line with nature and been finished on the famous summer heather. My family devoured it for Sunday lunch, and I must say that you could really taste the sweetness; a perfect example of how the best things are worth waiting for.
Tor to Tor, Holwell Farm, Widecombe-in-the-Moor, Dartmoor, (tel 01647 221335; mobile (tel 07976 535078); www.holwelldartmoor.co.uk/tortotor.html